UF should stop restricting faculty in voting suit against state, expert says

Speaking to the Florida Board of Governors, a Princeton scholar on free speech urges university to let professors have their say.
A voter makes her way into a polling place in Miramar on Tuesday. A lawsuit challenging Florida's new law restricting voting access has come into focus after the University of Florida barred three political science professors from continuing as paid expert witnesses in the case.
A voter makes her way into a polling place in Miramar on Tuesday. A lawsuit challenging Florida's new law restricting voting access has come into focus after the University of Florida barred three political science professors from continuing as paid expert witnesses in the case. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Nov. 4, 2021|Updated Nov. 5, 2021

A free-speech legal scholar from Princeton University told Florida’s top public university administrators Wednesday that he believes the University of Florida should allow its professors to weigh in on any litigation, regardless of whether they would be paid and if it’s against the state, saying to do otherwise would impinge on their First Amendment rights.

“I urge universities here in Florida and the University of Florida to get this controversy behind it as quickly as possible by simply interpreting the conflicts (of interest) in a way that do not distinguish paid or unpaid, and would give broad permission to testify as to what you are in fact an expert on,” Robert George, a prominent Princeton professor of politics and conservative legal scholar, told the Florida Board of Governors at its annual summit at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, who attended the meeting, said he had no thoughts on George’s remarks and declined to comment further. The university’s board of trustees chairperson Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, who also attended the meeting, declined to comment, as well, saying the issue “is under review.”

Last week, The New York Times reported that UF denied a request from three political science professors — Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin — to continue to serve as paid expert witnesses in a case that challenges Senate Bill 90, a new Florida law that restricts voting access. UF said their testimony could pose a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida and create a conflict for the University of Florida.”

UF’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, said Monday it would investigate the matter, focusing on “academic freedom” and “undue political influence.”

After UF’s decision erupted into a backlash in academia and elsewhere, the university modified its stance, saying if the professors wished to testify “pro bono on their own time without using university resources,” they could do so. The university also announced it would appoint a task force to review its conflict-of-interest policy.

On Tuesday, the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reported that UF restricted five other professors in offering legal or subject-matter expertise in cases that challenge policies advanced by the governor or Legislature. One of the professors, a professor of pediatrics, was blocked from working on a COVID mask lawsuit filed by parents of students with disabilities challenging DeSantis’ order preventing schools from issuing mask mandates.

George, the Princeton legal scholar, delivered the previously scheduled presentation on freedom of expression, which was followed by a panel discussion that included UF board of trustees member Rahul Patel, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer.

Patel told the audience — members of the state’s Board of Governors, the overseeing body of the 12 state universities; university administrators; and members of each university’s Board of Trustees — that UF’s current policy on conflicts of interest limited the university’s role in weighing freelance work of its faculty.

“Under the conflicts policy, we were not able to put our stamp of approval on professors coming to us taking a paid role in litigation, taking a position that is adverse to the University of Florida, the University of Florida being a part of the state,” Patel said.

“It would be like, if you had a business and an employee coming to you saying, ‘I would like to get paid separately to testify in a lawsuit against the interests of the parent company that I work for,’ ” he added.

George said that as a free speech advocate, he liked that Fuchs and UF provost Joe Glover recently emphasized the need to protect First Amendment rights in an email to the university community. It’s an established tenet of academic freedom that faculty can serve as expert witnesses in legal cases, and get paid for the work they do in a case.

“I don’t think that the distinction between paid and unpaid can ultimately be sustained,” George said. “If a professor writes a book that’s critical of university policy and will get royalties on that book, I think it would be a clear offense against his First Amendment freedom if he were told he couldn’t be paid royalties for said book. I think we’re in the same situation here.”

When approached by a Herald reporter after the panel, Patel declined to comment further, saying the UF board of trustees has a policy to let only the chairperson speak to media.

Florida Board of Governors chairperson Sydney Kitson, who has served in the leadership role since 2019 and plans to step down from the board on Thursday, said he didn’t understand the details of the UF policy regarding conflicts of interest, or how it has been implemented.

“I want to understand it better. Freedom of speech is very important,” he said. “I’m pleased to hear President Fuchs has agreed to review the policy, dig in a little deeper and learn from this, and see where we can go from here.”

He said he hopes the board will discuss the topic at a future time and eventually issue statewide guidelines that recommend standards to all schools, but allow each one to draft its own specific policy.

Kitson also said he believes UF has handled the situation well.

“I’m proud of them,” he said. “I give them a tremendous amount of credit for that.”

Asked if he has any concerns regarding politics interfering with academic freedom, considering the governor appoints half of the members of each of the state universities’ board of trustees, Kitson said he can only speak for himself.

“I’ve had zero political pressure to do anything over the past two years that I’ve been chair,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

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