The University of Florida has rejected requests by three professors to serve as expert witnesses for plaintiffs in a lawsuit that challenges a new Florida law limiting the ways in which state residents can vote. The news, first reported by The New York Times Friday drew sharp criticism from observers across the country, who said the move was an extraordinary violation of academic freedom. The Executive Director of the American Association of University Teachers tweeted that the “university’s attempt to muzzle these faculty members violates their academic freedom.”
In a statement, the University of Florida admitted that it had banned the three professors from participating in the trial, saying such work was “against the interests of the university as an institution of the State of Florida. “.
The lawsuit in question challenges a law, signed this year, that restricts the use of drop boxes for mail ballots, makes mail voting more difficult and adds new restrictions on political activity around polling stations. vote, among others. Critics said the law would affect voters of color the most.
In its statement, the university denied removing First Amendment rights or academic freedom from the three professors, and said it “has a long history of supporting free speech and academic freedom in our country. faculty, and we will continue to do so.
The development is part of a larger story at Florida Lighthouse and nationwide. In states where they hold political power, Republican lawmakers seek more say in the affairs of public colleges.
In Gainesville, Florida, President W. Kent Fuchs of the University of Florida has twice publicly alluded to the influence of the state Republican government on university politics. Last year, Fuchs told a faculty meeting that if the university didn’t move more of its classes from virtual to face-to-face for the spring semester, it risked a cut in public funding for the legislature. (Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, has been a vocal opponent of Covid-related restrictions. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature.)
Fuchs has been more explicit this year. Explaining why the university did not impose masks indoors – despite clear evidence that widespread masking inhibits the spread of Covid – Fuchs said: “I literally don’t have that power.” The president added that if he sent a message mandating the masks inside, “within a few hours another message would be sent from someone to everyone, saying once again that we have been informed that he There will be no such mandate We are part of the state government.
The three faculty members who were not allowed to serve as expert witnesses in the voting lawsuit are Michael McDonald, Daniel A. Smith and Sharon Wright Austin, all professors in the Florida Department of Political Science, according to the Times. The university has twice allowed Smith, the chairman of the department, to participate in lawsuits challenging the voting measures adopted by the Florida government, including as late as 2018.
According to Times, it was David E. Richardson, dean of the college of arts and sciences, who rejected Smith’s request to participate in the trial, while a vice-president of the university issued the other two rejections.