Florida blocks professors from testifying against voting law pushed by DeSantis

The University of Florida campus appears. | Wikimedia

TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s flagship university is under fire for violating the freedom of expression of three professors who prevented them from testifying in a lawsuit against the state’s new voting restrictions.

Top University of Florida officials claimed it was a conflict of interest for professors to testify in the lawsuit because they are government employees. It’s a notable turnaround in university policy that for years allowed professors to testify against the state in court cases – including one that unsuccessfully challenged state law that restricted the right to vote for convicted felons.

The decision comes at a time when Governor Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans have alleged that big tech companies, universities, and the Biden government are trying to suppress and intimidate conservative freedom of expression online, on campus, and at school board meetings.

“As Americans, we have the right to exercise our free speech at our discretion in testifying in a suit.

Florida’s new electoral law – which the Republicans debated to give them a competitive edge over the Democrats – was passed at DeSantis’s behest. It imposes restrictions on mailboxes and postal ballot papers. Democratic groups have condemned the move in response to former President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of election fraud during the 2020 election, saying it will disproportionately affect minorities and older voters. The battle for the law has attracted national groups, including the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senate Committee, which have filed motions to intervene in two federal lawsuits in support of the Voting Bill.

The testimony dispute was revealed in a court file filed on Friday. which was first reported by the New York Times, in which attorneys challenging the new law said they wanted to ask if the governor’s office was involved in the University of Florida decision, signaling fears that the state is politicizing a higher education institution.

Professor Daniel Smith of the University of Florida, currently director of the school’s political science department, has been said that “outside activities that may create a conflict of interest for the Florida state executive creates conflict for the University of Florida. ”

In a letter to senior university officials in October, Daniel Tilley, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the decision “a breathtaking admission that not only violates the most basic principles of academic freedom, but also Dr. Smith’s freedom of speech violated after the first amendment. ”

Tilley also noted in his letter that DeSantis himself was advocating legislation he believed was necessary to protect freedom of expression, including a new law requiring universities to conduct a survey to determine the “diversity of views” on campus measure up.

“Actually, the university is violating the ban on Dr. Smith against the repeatedly voiced free[1]Linguistic values ​​of the state of Florida and its governor, ”wrote Tilley. “But perhaps most importantly, UF should simply not go to Governor DeSantis to decide what speaking activities it allows its staff and students. This is exactly the opposite of the values ​​that universities stand for.”

The third professor to be silenced by the university is Sharon Austin, an expert on black voters. The university stated in its denials that “UF will decline requests from its employees to participate in external activities if it determines that the activities are contrary to their interests. Since UF is a state actor, a legal dispute against the state violates the interests of UF. “

In a letter to University of Florida officials protesting McDonald’s expulsion, Tilley wrote that “Your censorship by Dr. The expert statement by Dr. McDonald would be done in his capacity as a private individual and would be a matter of great public concern. In addition, his testimony would be vital to the public’s understanding of one of their most valuable rights – the right to vote. “

Officials at the Gainesville-based school claimed they were not violating professors’ freedom of expression.

“The University of Florida has a long track record of supporting the freedom of speech and academic freedom of our faculty, and we will continue to do so,” said Hessy Fernandez, a university spokeswoman, in an email. “It is important to note that the university has not denied Professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin the rights of the First Amendment or academic freedom. Rather, the university declined requests from these full-time employees to take up a paid job that would run counter to the interests of the university as an institution in the state of Florida. “

The United Faculty of Florida, the union that represents thousands of faculty members at the state’s public universities, rejected the university’s “outrageous claim” that the professors’ expert testimony was conflicting.

“UF doesn’t exist to protect @GovRonDeSantis or any party, “it was posted on Twitter.

Smith was a paid expert on numerous lawsuits filed while both DeSantis and the former Gov. Rick scott were in office, including legal challenges related to redistribution, early voting and the use of Spanish-language ballot papers.

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, made no comment and instead only provided a copy of one of the court records on the case.

The bill – dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0” by some Democrats – was approved by Florida’s GOP-led legislature last spring. It even made headway when local election officials, including Republicans, criticized the measure after conducting a hassle-free election in 2020. Several federal lawsuits filed by groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Rising Together, and the Florida branch of the NAACP allege the new law illegally targets elderly and disabled voters, as well as minority voters.

DeSantis is not directly named in the related lawsuits against the new law, but his office is fighting attempts to release documents and other information that might reveal how the law was drawn up and who was involved in it.

POLITICO reported last month that a series of internal emails and text messages showed that the law was drafted with the help of the top Florida Republican Party attorney – and that cracking down on postal voting requests was seen as a way for the GOP to benefit that the Democrats had in absentee voting in the 2020 elections. The embassies undermine Republicans’ consistent argument that the new law aims to prevent future election fraud.

Florida was just one of several GOP-controlled states to put election restrictions in place following the loss of Trump and his unfounded complaints of electoral fraud, though not as restrictive as the laws in Georgia and Texas.

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