U.S. Lawmakers Investigating University of Florida After Free Speech Debacle

Members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties opened an investigation into whether the University of Florida denied three professors' rights to free speech when it did not allow them to testify against a Florida election law, before reversing the decision.

Last month, the institution prohibited the professors from testifying in a lawsuit against a Florida law that would make it more difficult for felons to reclaim their voting rights. According to an Associated Press report, a school official said their testimony could put them at conflict with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration. More than half of UF's trustees were appointed by the governor.

However, the university reversed its decision earlier this month, allowing the professors to testify.

Members of the House subcommittee sent a letter to UF president Kent Fuchs asking for documents and communications on the initial denial, among other similar recent denials. They also asked for documents surrounding the school's conflicts-of-interest policy.

"We are concerned that UF is censoring its faculty based on viewpoint, which would set a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of its own commitment to freedom of expression," the letter said.

In an email to the AP, university spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said they received the letter and are "working to respond within the guidelines we received."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kent Fuchs, University of Florida
Reversing its previous position, the University of Florida said on November 5, that it would allow professors to testify as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new state law that critics say restricts voting rights. Above, University of Florida President-elect W. Kent Fuchs speaks during a press conference at Emerson Alumni Hall in Gainesville, Florida, on October 15, 2014. Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun via AP, File

In the letter, the House members said they were concerned about a school policy change last year requiring university employees to get approval before engaging in outside activities. Before the change, employees merely had to notify the school.

The letter added, "We are also concerned that, possibly due to pressure from trustees, politicians, or others, UF has adopted and enforced a conflicts policy that undermines the academic and free speech values that are essential to American higher education."

Under the new policy, four law school professors were prevented from stating their university affiliation last year in a friend-of-the-court brief for a lawsuit challenging a law that made it more difficult for felons to get their voting rights back. Then, UF also denied requests from a medical school professor to testify in lawsuits challenging Governor Ron DeSantis' ban on school mask mandates, the letter said.

Some professors have filed a lawsuit against the university, and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges is reviewing what happened.

Fuchs has appointed a task force to review the school's conflict of interest policy, and a preliminary report could be ready by the end of the month.

University of Florida, Gators
The University of Florida is being investigated by the U.S. House for potentially violating professors' rights to free speech. Above, mascot Albert the Alligator of the Florida Gators looks on during the fourth quarter of a game between the Gators and the Vanderbilt Commodores at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on October 9 in Gainesville, Florida. Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images