University of Florida backs off from attempt to control professors' freedom to testify

Winds of political turmoil that roiled academic waters and riled Gators in the home of “The Swamp” and beyond may have calmed for now, after the University of Florida reversed course Friday on an attempt to block professors from testifying in a high-profile voting rights lawsuit.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of a sweeping elections law (SB 90), passed in April by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Among other things, the law makes it harder for people to vote by mail.

The controversy surrounding the university stemmed from a court document filed last week by plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The filing revealed that the school told political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin they could not be hired to testify as expert witnesses for plaintiffs in the case.

According to the court document, UF 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.

The university’s stance garnered national headlines, which led to course corrections by UF leaders.

In response to the growing scrutiny earlier this week, University President Kent Fuchs said the professors could testify if they didn’t get paid or use school resources.

But in a statement issued Friday, Fuchs wrote that the professors are free to be hired as expert witnesses “assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources.”

The reversal garnered some praise from Gator faculty and alumni, but with some caveats.

Paul Ortiz, president of the university’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida union, commended the administration for flipping its earlier decision but called for an increased commitment to academic freedom.

“This is a positive step forward and I applaud President Fuchs's decision today to reverse the decisions that had prevented Professors Austin, McDonald and Smith from engaging in scholarly activities. However, UFF-UF is looking for a clear and unambiguous commitment to academic freedom going forward,” Ortiz said.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a UF graduate who previously criticized the school administration on the issue, also called for “safeguards” to ensure professors aren’t blocked from participating in future litigation.

“It’s welcome news that university administration is reversing this mistake —- but it never should have happened in the first place. I hope that stronger safeguards for independent intellectual freedom are put into place, because free speech and the truth cannot be bound by political headwinds,” Fried said in a statement.

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