The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

University of Florida bars faculty members from testifying in voting rights lawsuit against DeSantis administration

Students on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, Fla., in early September. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

The University of Florida barred three faculty members from testifying for plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging a voting-restrictions law enthusiastically embraced by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), which activists say makes it harder for racial minorities to vote. The school’s move raises sharp concerns about academic freedom and free speech in the state.

The public university said the three faculty members — political scientists Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin — could present “a conflict of interest to the executive branch” and harm the school’s interests by testifying against the law signed by DeSantis in May.

“As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests,” school officials said, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

Lawyers trying to reverse the Florida law, also known as Senate Bill 90, have sought to question DeSantis on whether he was involved in the decision to prevent the academics from testifying, according to the New York Times, which first reported on the university’s move.

The move to bar professors from being expert witnesses in public trials is highly unusual. In a letter to the university, lawyers representing the professors said that faculty members retain their First Amendment rights to free speech even if their remarks may “make a University’s relationship with funding sources more difficult.”

The attorneys cited U.S. Supreme Court rulings that protect the rights of individuals to disclose information acquired “by virtue of their public employment.”

The academics will file a legal challenge against the university if it does not change its stance, said Paul Donnelly, a lawyer representing Smith, McDonald, and Austin.

As Florida’s governor, DeSantis has influence over the funding of the state’s public institutions of higher education. He also has the authority to name six of the 13 members of the university’s board of trustees. All appointed trustees are subject to state Senate confirmation.

In a statement provided to The Post on Saturday, the university denied it had violated the First Amendment rights of its faculty members. Representatives for DeSantis could not be reached for comment.

Facing a historic challenge, Florida Democrats stumble against DeSantis

After the 2020 presidential election, DeSantis and Florida’s Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law whose provisions include restricting voting by mail and barring everyone except election officials from providing food or water to voters waiting in long lines. In Florida, particularly during early voting in October, waiting to cast a ballot can mean standing in line in the hot sun.

This law was enacted despite a virtually flawless election in Florida last year. Former president Donald Trump, who has baselessly alleged electoral fraud elsewhere, won the state’s 29 electoral votes.

About 40 percent of all votes cast by Black Americans in last year’s presidential election were submitted by mail, or double the percentage for 2016, according to Demos, a think tank that is among the groups suing to reverse the new voting restrictions.

Multiple studies show that precincts with larger Black populations tend to endure longer lines on Election Day. Restricting mail voting will mean longer voting lines at more crowded polling stations, Demos said.