By Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Reversing a decision that riled faculty members and put school administrators under scrutiny, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs on Friday cleared the way for three professors to serve as expert witnesses in a high-profile legal challenge to a controversial state elections law.
Political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin were hired to testify as witnesses for plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of the law (SB 90) in federal court. Among other things, the law, passed in April by the Republican-controlled Legislature, makes it harder for people to vote by mail.
But the university drew national attention and widespread criticism after a court document revealed last week that the school was blocking the professors from testifying. According to the court document, the university told the professors that their serving as witnesses would “create a conflict” for the university, in part because it would pose a conflict of interest to the state’s executive branch.
UF later said said the professors could testify if they didn’t get paid or use school resources
Fuchs, however, wrote in a statement Friday that the professors are free to be hired as expert witnesses “assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources.”
Fuchs also said the university will go ahead with convening a task force to review the school’s practices “regarding requests for approval of outside activities involving potential conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment.”
“In particular, the task force will make a recommendation to me on how UF should respond when employees request approval to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party,” Fuchs wrote.
The task force will include the school’s provost and chief academic officer, deans of the university’s journalism school and college of law, two professors and its chief officer of compliance, ethics and privacy.
The university’s original decision to prohibit the professors’ testimony drew national headlines and criticism from faculty members.
“Professors Smith, McDonald and Austin are renowned experts in the field of voting rights. They are also members of our faculty union. Since Oct. 13, leaders of our grievances team, as well as our executive committee, have met around the clock with these three courageous faculty members, to ensure that they will be able to do what they do best; pursuing scholarship in the public interest to ensure that all eligible citizens have equal access to our democracy,” Paul Ortiz, president of the university’s chapter of the United Faculty of Florida union, said during a news conference Friday morning before Fuchs’ announcement.
After the announcement, Ortiz commended the administration for reversing its earlier decision but called for an increased commitment to academic freedom.
“This is a positive step forward and I applaud President Fuchs’s decision today to reverse the decisions that had prevented Professors Austin, McDonald and Smith from engaging in scholarly activities. However, UFF-UF is looking for a clear and unambiguous commitment to academic freedom going forward,” Ortiz said.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a graduate of the university who previously criticized the school administration on the issue, also called for “safeguards” that would prevent professors from being blocked from participating in future litigation.
“It’s welcome news that university administration is reversing this mistake — but it never should have happened in the first place. I hope that stronger safeguards for independent intellectual freedom are put into place, because free speech and the truth cannot be bound by political headwinds,” Fried said in a statement.
The federal court challenge involves an elections law that was a top priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Attorneys for plaintiffs in the case sought to take deposition testimony from a representative of the governor’s office about any involvement by the DeSantis administration in trying to prevent the professors from serving as expert witnesses.
But Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker released a decision Thursday that quashed a subpoena issued to the governor’s office by attorneys for the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs sought information about communications between the governor’s office and people in the university system about the law or expert witnesses, but Walker rejected the request based on the governor’s office claim of executive privilege.
I am a member of the faculty at one of our great state institutions, AND I am conservative. There are more of us than you think and we work every day to help our students learn to think for themselves rather than indoctrinate. I do not speak for all faculty, but for myself and conservative colleagues that I speak with frequently, this is true. So, let’s apply a bit of that in this situation, shall we?
The UF faculty in question are allowed to vocalize their expert opinion (as protected by our Constitution) even though I may not agree with their statements. This should not protect them from the consequences of stating those opinions, however. Yet many claim the First Amendment is a protection from consequences clause even thought it is not. To address some of these consequences at the university level all faculty are contractually obligated to fulfill their duties each and every semester which means we/they can take on consulting work so long as it does not interfere with those duties. Herein lies the potential conflict. The duties of research/scholarly work, teaching, and service can be interpreted broadly. This is a good thing in the vast majority of situations within the university system so that faculty can have the FREEDOM to pursue meaningful scholarly activity without being told what is worthwhile and what is not.
In this case, I think the UF president should have reversed course, and did the correct thing by admitting a mistake and then doing something about it.
We decry the situations when the roles are reversed – conservatives being stripped of their rights by progressives in power. All it takes is a Conservative to set a precedent for a Progressive to weaponize it en masse. If that happens, then the university system really will be lost.
The Democrats want to make voter fraud legal.
So how does anybody think this elite committee will rule? Since UF like all colleges and universities are extreme left wing radicals they will rule that anything conservative is evil and must be done away with. The 3 “expert” witnesses will all testify that the election law is discriminatory against blacks. They believe that all blacks are stupid, incompetent, and that the Democrats must watch over them and protect them from the big bad conservatives. In other words they are to stupid to produce a valid photo ID even when one is provided to them free of charge.
Democrats want a voting system that allows wide spread cheating so they can remain/gain in power.
Boy, it didn’t take long for them to reverse course, its not like the football team is stinkin’ up the place or anything like that. Oh wait a minute… now it all makes sense.
A perfect example of how the Public Indoctrination System has become a threat to our national security.
“Biting the hand that feeds you”
“Killing the goose that laid the golden egg”
You get the idea; that’s the left for you. The ingratitude toward this country is sickening.
I don’t know why people think it is virtuous to destroy their own country. The nazis thought they were making Germany great. Maybe it’s like that; an extreme spiritual blindness. Well, the last thing we want to do is “go along to get along”.