The University of Florida has ordered its professors not to take part in a case challenging voting rights restrictions, saying it would put them on a collision course with the state government.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs want to question Gov. Ron DeSantis about the university’s decision, but his lawyers have balked, arguing any discussions he had about it would contain privileged information.
The suit seeks to overturn Florida’s new law restricting voting rights, similar to legislation in Georgia and Texas that sharply limited ballot drop boxes.
According to a motion filed Friday in federal court, university officials emailed professor Michael McDonald in October 2020 to inform him that he could not be involved in the suit since “litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.”
Around the same time, professors Dan Smith and Sharon Austin received similar messages. “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,” read the email to Smith.
McDonald researches elections and voter turnout and has assisted the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, according to his university bio. Smith, the chair of the college’s department of political science, researches voting rights and elections, and Austin studies African-American political behavior.
The three professors have testified as expert witnesses in cases that both challenged and upheld state law. Smith testified in a case that forced the state to issue ballots in Spanish in 2018.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, the racial justice organization Florida Rising Together, told The New York Times that barring the professors from testifying “goes against the core of what the University of Florida should stand for in terms of academic freedom.”
In a Saturday statement, the school said: “The University of Florida has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so. It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin.
“Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”
The nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education blasted the ban.
“FIRE has said it before, and we’ll say it again: The profound civic importance of fair trials requires the ability of fact and expert witnesses to come forward to testify truthfully without fear that their government employer might retaliate against them. Public university faculty are no exception. We call on UF to reverse course immediately,” it said in a statement.
McDonald tweeted a link to the Times story on Friday evening, along with a gif of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers singing, “Well I won’t back down/No I won’t back down.”
The university—which said it does not comment on pending litigation—has strong ties to DeSantis.
Morteza Hosseini, the head of the UF board of trustees, co-chaired DeSantis’ 2018 transition team and has made major donations to the Republican Party. Hosseini was behind the hiring of Joseph Ladapo at the university just before DeSantis named him surgeon general.