After public outrage over its decision to block professors from testifying as expert witnesses about voting rights, the University of Florida tried to defend itself this week by issuing a statement claiming to support "academic freedom." But critics argued in response that such a defense was blatantly hypocritical, and its treatment of its faculty cannot be justified.
The dispute first arose when political science professors Michael McDonald, Sharon Austin, and Daniel Smith were told by the university that they could not testify as expert witnesses in a case against Florida's voting laws. Officials for the university claimed it was a "conflict of interest" for the professors, as state employees, to testify in cases against Florida's interest.
Many quickly pointed out that this was a clear case of government censorship, effectively shutting down critics of the state in an extremely consequential circumstance. It's all the more egregious because Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, like many other Republicans, has presented himself as a defender of the value of free speech.
"It is a profound, chilling, frightening change in policy,'' said Paul Donnelly, a lawyer for the professors, according to the Miami Herald. "What would happen if another party was in control and could engage in this kind of censorship."
Austin said: "We must support academic freedom no matter what the consequences are."
In a statement, the university claimed it is a proponent of free speech — even while confirming the story:
Recent news reports have indicated the University of Florida denied requests of some faculty members to participate in a lawsuit over the state of Florida's new election laws.
The University of Florida has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty's academic freedom, and we will continue to do so. It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university's interests as a state of Florida institution.
On Twitter, McDonald suggested that even this statement was, in part, the university's misleading spin. When the professors requested permission to serve as expert witnesses, the university's denial was not based on the fact that it would be "paid work," as the statement implied, he said. According to the rejection notice he posted, officials objected to the fact that the professor's testimony would be "adverse to UF's interests."
FIRE, an organization that promotes freedom of expression in academia, said in a statement: "The profound civic importance of fair trials requires the ability of fact and expert witnesses to come forward to testify truthfully without fear that their government employer might retaliate against them. Public university faculty are no exception. We call on UF to reverse course immediately."
"Gov. Ron DeSantis has opposed Big Tech censorship and touted the free speech of parents," said Politico reporter Marc Caputo said on Twitter. "But University of Florida has muzzled 3 stat professors from testifying against a new voting-restriction law. Where does DeSantis stand?"
The New York Times reported:
Robert C. Post, a Yale Law School professor and expert on academic freedom and the First Amendment, said he knew of no other case in which a university had imposed prior restraint on a professor's ability to speak.
"The university does not exist to protect the governor," he said. "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."