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More professors join testimony lawsuit against UF

University of Florida
University of Florida

Three more University of Florida professors have joined a lawsuit challenging a policy that gives the school discretion in blocking faculty members from testifying against the state in legal cases, with professors told that going against the executive branch of government was “adverse” to the university’s interests.

Political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith filed a lawsuit Nov. 5 naming University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, Provost Joseph Glover and the school’s board of trustees as defendants, after the professors were denied requests to serve as plaintiffs’ witnesses in a challenge to a new elections law (SB 90) that includes making it harder for Floridians to vote by mail.

According to court records, the university told the professors that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict” for the university. State universities rely on the Legislature for funding, and the governor has the ability to veto line items in the budget.

An amended complaint filed Monday in federal court added law professors Teresa Reid and Kenneth Nunn and Jeffrey Goldhagen, a professor in the university’s College of Medicine, as plaintiffs. The lawsuit alleges that administrators’ decisions to prevent faculty members from participating in lawsuits against the state violates First Amendment rights.

The latest twist came after UF flip-flopped on a decision to block the tenured political-science professors from testifying in the high-stakes elections case, which alleges the law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this spring will make it harder for Black and Hispanic voters to cast ballots.

After the university’s move to bar the professors from testifying garnered national headlines, UF leaders hurriedly took a series of steps to walk back the decision. Fuchs announced that the professors would be allowed to be paid to testify as experts for the plaintiffs if they did so on their own time and did not use university resources. Fuchs also quickly assembled a task force to probe the conflicts-of-interest issue.

Fuchs’ reversal came the same day the political science professors filed the initial version of the lawsuit accusing him and other university leaders of “stifling” their First Amendment rights.

The university’s attempts to stop professors from testifying came after initiating a “conflicts of commitment and conflicts of interest policy” in July 2020. The policy requires UF faculty members to submit online requests for permission to participate in an “outside activity,” either paid or unpaid, which could “create an actual or apparent conflict of commitment or conflict of interest.”

According to the amended complaint filed Monday, Reid and Nunn wanted to sign onto a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit challenging a 2019 state law requiring felons to pay court-ordered fees, fines and restitution to be able to vote. The law, signed by DeSantis, was aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

After the university’s new policy was launched, law school Dean Laura Rosenbury told professors they needed permission to sign friend-of-the-court briefs “only if the brief was filed in a case opposing the state of Florida,” according to court documents.

Nunn was permitted to sign onto the brief, but Rosenbury instructed him and other professors in a July 13, 2020, email “to ensure that the amicus brief clearly indicates that any law school or university affiliation is included for identification purposes only.”

Reid was allowed to sign the brief but was not allowed to disclose any identifiers associating her with the university, according to the court document filed Monday.

About 10 other professors who had expressed an interest in signing the brief ultimately did not do so “following the controversy surrounding the university’s shifting positions,” the document said.

The university rejected a request by Goldhagen, a pediatrician, to testify in a lawsuit challenging state officials’ attempts to block schools from requiring children to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The amended complaint said Goldhagen asked about the appeal procedure for decisions related to the disclosure for outside activities, but was told by university Assistant Vice President for Conflicts of Interest Gary Wimsett that “there is no mechanism for appealing disapprovals” by his office.

The university’s policy is contrary to its mission as a public research institution “to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good,” the lawsuit alleges.

“The university denied plaintiffs’ requests for one reason: Plaintiffs wanted to use their experience and expertise to support Florida citizens who challenged the state of Florida, rather than backing the state’s position. Plaintiffs’ job as public university professors and researchers is not to be mouthpieces for the government’s point of view. It is to develop and share their academic knowledge and expertise with the people of Florida while upholding the university’s values and fulfilling their oath — taken by all public employees in the state — to ‘support the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Florida,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accuses the university of “discriminating against plaintiffs based on the viewpoints they wish to express and by seeking to prevent them from speaking on issues of overwhelming public importance,” in violation of their First Amendment rights.

“The university will continue to do so if it is not stopped. Facing a firestorm of nationwide criticism, the university agreed to let plaintiffs proceed with their already-planned testimony in pending cases. But the university’s unconstitutional conflict-of-interest policy remains in place, giving the university unfettered discretion to stifle speech that it deems ‘adverse’ to the state’s political interests,” the lawsuit said. “Unless and until the university’s unconstitutional policy is rescinded, plaintiffs First Amendment rights and academic freedom — and those of every University of Florida faculty member — remain at stake.”

Dara Kam - News Service of Florida