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Professors sue University of Florida, claiming free speech restraints

The state flagship school had reversed course earlier Friday, saying professors could testify against the DeSantis administration

Students walk through campus at the University of Florida. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

Three professors filed a lawsuit against the University of Florida on Friday, claiming school officials violated their right to free speech by trying to prevent them from offering testimony in a voting rights case.

The case further inflames a heated debate over academic freedom, one that has brought national attention and criticism to the state flagship university.

It was filed on the same day school officials reversed course: After a week of controversy and pushback from faculty, alumni and academics across the country, the University of Florida on Friday said the three political science professors should not be barred from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

The complaint by the professors contends the university is discriminating against them based on viewpoints they wish to express, and by trying to prevent them from offering expert testimony on issues of overwhelming public importance, UF violated their First Amendment rights.

Seeking to restrict the professors from testifying is contrary to UF’s stated mission as a public research institution — “to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good,” and to the principles of academic freedom and free speech, the complaint says.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare unlawful the policy of “stifling faculty speech against the State.”

Hessy Fernandez, a UF spokeswoman, said the university does not comment on pending litigation.

UF president Kent Fuchs wrote in a campuswide email earlier Friday that he was asking the school’s Conflicts of Interest office to allow the professors, all of whom are experts in their fields, to testify in a federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit by voting rights groups challenges a new state law, championed by DeSantis, that puts new limitations on ballot drop boxes and vote-by-mail practices.

David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, attorneys for the professors, said in an email that despite reversing the decision prohibiting the professors from testifying, the school had “made no commitment to abandon its policy preventing academics from serving as expert witnesses when the University thinks that their speech may be adverse to the State and whatever political agenda politicians want to promote.”

After Fuchs’s announcement Friday, Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the university, who, along with several colleagues at the law school, has raised concerns about academic freedom at the university, called it a welcome development. “I think it’s great that the president saw the university’s reputation was being damaged by their unfortunate decision to restrict those three faculty members from testifying in their case.”

But Nunn said the decision doesn’t do anything about the many faculty who have been restricted from testifying and those who probably feel a chilling effect.

Fuchs said in an email to students and faculty earlier this week that he was appointing a task force to review the university’s conflict of interest policy, which was created last year.

“First, we would like to be abundantly clear that the University of Florida stands firmly behind its commitment to uphold our most sacred right as Americans — the right to free speech — and to faculty members’ right to academic freedom,” Fuchs wrote. “Nothing is more fundamental to our existence as an institution of higher learning than these two bedrock principles. Vigorous intellectual discussions are at the heart of the marketplace of ideas we celebrate and hold so dear.”

But that did not quell the firestorm among faculty and others who saw the prohibition against professors Michael McDonald, Sharon D. Wright Austin and Daniel A. Smith as a violation of academic freedom.

“It appears as though Fuchs made an exception to a policy that is deeply flawed,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors and professor and chair of the Mathematics Department at Fairfield University.

“He’s managing a PR crisis by making an exception. But the policy still stands — which is deeply troubling. It never should have happened in the first place,” Mulvey said.

In September, UF touted its rise to No. 5 on the U.S. News and World Report’s 2022 list of best public schools. Fuchs wrote in the UF Alumni Association magazine that it was “very welcome and historic news” to achieve “a milestone decades in the making.”

But the controversy over barring professors from testifying as experts prompted UF’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, to say it was looking into the matter to see if an investigation is called for, a move that could threaten the school’s coveted ranking.

The organization sent a letter to Fuchs on Nov. 2, asking him to prepare a report that “explains and documents” UF’s compliance with issues of academic freedom and external influence. Fuchs has until Dec. 7 to respond.

“We’re just going to let the investigation play itself out,” said Belle Wheelan, president of the accrediting organization. “I can only imagine he will do everything he can to turn this around.”