The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The University of Florida’s decision to silence its professors is an assault on academic freedom

Students on the University of Florida campus on Sept. 1 in Gainesville, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)
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Daniel A. Smith has been on the faculty at the University of Florida for nearly 20 years and is recognized for his scholarship on voting rights, ballot issues and political participation. He has provided testimony to Congress and state legislatures, advised numerous outside groups, and served as an expert witness in many voting rights cases. In the past, the university not only approved all of those outside activities but also celebrated his involvement in high-profile cases, which brought national recognition to the university and created opportunities for students.

Now the university has barred Mr. Smith and two other professors, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin, from testifying in a major voting rights case against Florida. The unprecedented decision is an infringement — likely unconstitutional — on academic freedom that raises troubling questions about whether Florida’s flagship university bowed to political pressure to muzzle faculty voices on a matter of critical public interest.

Opinion by Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith: 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.

A coalition of advocacy and voting rights groups wanted to hire the three professors, who all specialize in voting rights and behavior and election law, as expert witnesses in their challenge of Florida’s new law restricting voting rights. Faculty are required to “report any outside activities and interests” and file requests for approval through the university’s conflict-of-interest office. Such requests are routinely approved, but this time the activities were adjudged to be “adverse to the university’s interests.” Mr. Smith was told in an email that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.”

The American Association of University Professors, condemning the decision “in the strongest possible terms,” noted that among the stated missions of the university is its obligation “to share the benefits of its research and knowledge for the public good.” Silencing academic experts who can provide testimony in a lawsuit aimed at strengthening voting rights is not consistent with that mission. Equally troubling is how the university seems to have conflated its interests with those of the state’s executive branch, i.e., Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who has made legislation restricting voters a signature issue. He signed the bill into law before a crowd of supporters of former president Donald Trump in a ceremony that was broadcast by Fox News but excluded local reporters.

Lawyers for the groups challenging Florida’s Senate Bill 90 want to question Mr. DeSantis about whether he was involved in the university’s decision to silence the professors. He initially, the New York Times reported, resisted on the grounds that all of his communications about the law are privileged against disclosure, and he did not respond to media inquiries. The head of the university’s board of trustees, Morteza Hosseini, is a major Republican donor and an adviser to Mr. DeSantis.

Though a spokeswoman for Mr. DeSantis subsequently denied that the governor had any direct involvement in the university’s move, she implied he endorses it, saying the Constitution “guarantees the right to free speech, but there is no right to profit from speech.” What would actually profit most from allowing the professors’ testimony, however, is the public interest.