‘Muzzling’ of faculty puts UF outside academic mainstream, Democrats say

Members of Florida’s congressional delegation express “profound disappointment” in letter to University of Florida president.
U.S. representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz, left, and Ted Deutch were among the members of Florida's congressional delegation who criticized the University of Florida on Tuesday.
U.S. representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz, left, and Ted Deutch were among the members of Florida's congressional delegation who criticized the University of Florida on Tuesday. [ AMY BETH BENNETT / SOUTH FLORIDA | South Florida Sun-Sentinel ]
Published Nov. 2, 2021

In continued fallout over the University of Florida’s attempt to prohibit three professors from testifying in a case about voting rights, Democrats from the state’s congressional delegation expressed their “profound disappointment” with the school in a letter Tuesday to UF president Kent Fuchs.

The letter said UF had tried to “muzzle professors” in a way that positions it “firmly outside the mainstream of elite academic institutions.” Allowing the professors to testify, the letter said, would not be harmful to the university’s interests as the professors had been told.

“In fact they greatly enhance the University of Florida’s academic standing, both by demonstrating their superior understanding of the issues and by setting an example for students in defending such a sacred tenet of democracy,” the letter stated. “Regardless, the faculty at the University of Florida do not give up their rights as citizens by virtue of their public employment.”

Related: UF, seeking status in academia, is blasted by its own faculty leaders

While the university clarified that the professors could testify if they did not receive compensation, the letter said that was a troubling stance because experts are commonly compensated for their testimony. Additionally, they said, one of the professors has previously testified in voting rights cases since 2012.

“The ability to exercise their academic freedom and First Amendment rights should not be dependent on forgoing payment,” the letter said. “The decision to change course and only permit pro bono participation provides even greater credence to the assumption that this decision involved politically-motivated viewpoint discrimination.”

The lawmakers called on the university to reverse its position and to answer questions. They asked how allowing the professors to testify would be “adverse to the interests” of UF. They asked why there was a change from past practice and, if there was a change in policy, to explain when it happened and what notification was provided to faculty. They also asked the university how allowing the faculty members to testify pro bono addressed the issue, and to provide examples.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, led the initiative, which was signed by fellow Democratic representatives Kathy Castor of Tampa, Ted Deutch of Boca Raton, Frederica Wilson of Miami, Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, Val Demings and Darren Soto of Orlando, Al Lawson of Tallahassee and Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park.

As a UF alumna whose father, husband and three children also went to the university, Wasserman Schultz said it was painful “to just witness the abandonment of what I view everything as a university, and a public university, stands for.”

Professors have previously been allowed to testify, she said. The only difference from now and a case three years ago, she said, is that Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose office has denied his involvement, is now in power.

“Whether it’s direct or implied, it’s disgusting,” she said. “The ugly pressure he put on educators is the root of the problem.”

She called the damage to UF’s “pristine” reputation an “unacceptable, undemocratic or unconstitutional” abuse by DeSantis.

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U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor [ Castor campaign ]

“It’s a shameful chapter,” Castor said, “and I regret the black eye that the governor and president Fuchs, who should know better, and board of trustees have given the State University System.”

DeSantis and the Republican Party, she said, have gone too far in dragging public schools and universities into political battlegrounds.

“A university is not the political arm of the political party in power,” Castor said.