The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A win in Florida for academic freedom — and for democracy

Students carry a mural on the University of Florida campus on Sept. 1, 2021 in Gainesville, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

If you don’t want to be compared to a repressive regime that doesn’t allow free speech and expression, stop acting like one. That was the blunt advice to the University of Florida from a federal judge as he sided with six professors who said school officials had violated their First Amendment rights. The strongly worded defense of academic freedom came in a high-profile case that should serve as a warning about the dangers to democracy when critical inquiry and expression are stifled.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Friday blocked the University of Florida from barring professors from participating in lawsuits against the state. Issuing a preliminary injunction involving a conflict-of-interest policy enacted in 2020, the judge accused the university of trying to silence the professors because of fear their testimony, in cases involving voting rights and mask mandates, would anger Republican state officials and lawmakers who control funding for the state’s flagship school.

The 74-page order likened the actions of the University of Florida to Hong Kong’s removal last year of an imposing statue that had stood for more than 20 years commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre victims because of political pressure from the authoritarian Chinese government. “Some might say, ‘that’s China, it could never happen here,'” the judge wrote, “But Plaintiffs contend it already has.” A footnote drove the point home: “If those in UF’s administration find this comparison upsetting, the solution is simple. Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong.”

When three professors sought to serve as expert witnesses in a lawsuit testing Florida’s restrictive voting law enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature and championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), they were told no. Even though such requests had been routinely approved, this time the activities were judged to be “adverse to the university’s interests.” The professors sued and were joined by a pediatrics professor who had been barred from testifying in a lawsuit challenging Mr. DeSantis’s effort to withhold funds from schools with mask mandates and two professors told not to identify themselves as University of Florida faculty in an amicus brief regarding voting rights for felons.

The university has offered varying explanations — first contending a conflict of interest, then saying the faculty could be witnesses if they weren’t paid and then lifting the ban and claiming to have rewritten the policy to make future bans more difficult. The judge noted that only when the matter gained national prominence did the university, its reputation tarred, relent for these professors. What it still has not done — despite what he called “ample opportunity to limit its discretion to salvage its constitutionally infirm policy” — is amend the policy to state that the school will not rely on political considerations to deny an outside activity request.

More is at stake than the individual rights of professors. Teachers, the judge wrote, quoting Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, are the “priests of our democracy” who provide guidance in the pursuit of truth and informed citizenship. “When such critical inquiry is stifled,” Judge Walker wrote, “democracy suffers.” The judge set trial for November, and the association that accredits the university is conducting its own inquiry. A spokeswoman for the university said it is considering its next steps. Here’s an idea: recognize that the mission of a university is to promote knowledge and understanding and not cower to the interests of the politicians in power.

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