The University of Florida has said that three of its faculty members are not allowed to give testimony for plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit that challenges the state’s new law that restricts voting rights, which has been strongly championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. The public university told the three political scientists—Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Wright Austin—they could hurt the interests of the institution by assisting plaintiffs in the case. The move, which raises questions about academic independence and freedom of speech, is extraordinary, and some analysts say it is likely unconstitutional.
The university told the three professors their testimony could pose “a conflict of interest to the executive branch” and that may very well hurt the school. “As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests,” school officials said. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are trying to figure out whether DeSantis was involved in the decision to prevent the professors from testifying. But DeSantis insists that all communications regarding the law are protected from disclosure because they involve discussions about legislation.
It seems this is the first time the University of Florida has forbidden its professors from testifying in a lawsuit. And experts tell the New York Times, which was first to report the news, that they know of no other instance in which a professor’s testimony has been restricted in this way. “The university does not exist to protect the governor,” Robert C. Post, a Yale Law School professor and expert on academic freedom, tells the Times. “It exists to serve the public. It is an independent institution to serve the public good, and nothing could be more to the public good than a professor telling the truth to the public under oath.”
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said that the reasoning used by the university to prevent the professors from testifying “goes against the core of what the University of Florida should stand for in terms of academic freedom.” Lawyers representing the professors have vowed to file a lawsuit against the university if it doesn’t change its stance. The effort to question DeSantis on the issue suggests lawyers for the plaintiffs think the governor’s close ties to the university may have played a role in the decision. The head of the university’s board of trustees, Morteza Hosseini, is a big donor to the Republican Party.