The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We work for the people of Florida. That’s why we can’t let the University of Florida silence us on a voting rights law.

People wait in line to vote at the Bell Shoals Baptist Church on Nov. 3, 2020, in Brandon, Fla. (Chris O'meara/AP)
Comment

This article has been updated.

Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith are political science professors at the University of Florida. Smith is also the chair of the university’s Department of Political Science.

As political science professors, each of us teaches, writes and speaks every day on issues of voting and democracy. For years, our expertise has been valued by our employer, the University of Florida.

So we were stunned to learn last month that the university was barring us from testifying in an upcoming legal challenge to Florida’s new voting law, S.B. 90. The university’s move is a gross violation of academic freedom; more importantly, though, it’s an undermining of our mission to serve the people of Florida — all of them — as employees of a state research university.

We should be permitted to testify and will fight for our right to do so.

Because of our experience and knowledge, we were hired as expert witnesses on a major voting rights case brought by the NAACP and numerous other nonprofit organizations against the Florida secretary of state and 67 elections supervisors over the new voting law, which the Brennan Center for Justice calls “an omnibus voter suppression bill that will make it harder for Floridians to vote.” Voting rights groups maintain that the law is bad on many levels, but, most importantly, it will harm poor and minority voters by making voting by mail much more difficult.

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We have worked on cases like this before without objection from university officials. But with S.B. 90, a piece of legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law live on Fox News, the university has offered a series of shifting rationales to justify blocking us from testifying. In our view, all the rationales reveal is a fear of retribution from political actors for our testimony.

First, the university tried to block our participation by claiming our testimony would be “adverse” to Florida’s interests. We do not understand how identifying racial and ethnic discrimination in voting laws could possibly harm the state. As an institution that “strives to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for all students, employees, partners, and visitors,” shouldn’t the university be pleased with our efforts to examine whether voting discrimination exists in Florida?

As public employees, each of us has sworn an oath to “support the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Florida.” Our oath binds us to the people of Florida, not the politicians in the government. Regardless of the merits of the case, the public is entitled to have a full airing, with competing expert views, on an issue so central to the health of our democracy. That is how we fulfill the university’s stated goal of sharing the benefits of our research and knowledge for the public good. Our job as public university professors and researchers is not to be mouthpieces for a particular administration’s — or any administration’s — point of view.

When we pointed this out, the university retreated to a new rationale — that the problem with our testimony is that we would be compensated for it. Again, this is an embarrassingly weak excuse and more likely just a way of punishing viewpoints that threaten politicians. The arrangements surrounding our testimony are irrelevant.

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And if, as the university has more recently claimed, its concern is the fact that “University full-time faculty are paid with taxpayer dollars,” the university has chosen a particularly odd way of advancing that interest. With the university’s encouragement, we can spread our views in our official capacities as professors whose activities are funded by the taxpayers. Why would it be a problem for the university if we said exactly the same things when our compensation does not come from the state?

Further, this argument suggests that the university will favor certain viewpoints over others by making clear that if a professor supports the politicians, she may receive just compensation, but if she opposes the politicians, she must pay her own way. This is antithetical to the most basic principles of academic freedom.

We would have hoped that the university’s response to political encroachment would be to stand up for its independence and stand firm behind its guiding mission. Instead, it has caved — and in the process, it has forgotten whom we work for. As public employees, we serve all Floridians, not the politicians who control the state government.

That’s why we should be permitted to testify and intend to fight the university’s order. The court should hear evidence without censorship by politicians or the University of Florida. Doing so, after all, is our job — and the cornerstone of the university’s own mission statement: “to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.”

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