UF professors file federal lawsuit alleging ‘stifling of faculty speech’

The suit came despite the university’s decision earlier Friday to allow the professors to participate in legal action against the state.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
Century Tower sits at the heart of the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. [ University of Florida ]
Published Nov. 6, 2021|Updated Nov. 6, 2021

Three University of Florida professors who were barred from testifying in a lawsuit against the state’s new voting law filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging their First Amendment rights were violated and asking the court to strike down the school policy that led to a “stifling of faculty speech against the state.”

The lawsuit came despite the university reversing its decision earlier Friday and allowing the three faculty members, all political science professors, to participate in the voting rights lawsuit after all — as long as they did so on their own time and did not use school resources.

The suit notes that the state has not “prohibited testimony by professors at public universities that favor its viewpoint.”

It also points to reports that the university had also denied similar requests from other faculty to participate in legal action. “Those applications had one thing in common with plaintiffs’,” the lawsuit says. “They sought permission to support groups bringing litigation against the state.”

Faculty members, it says, were not employed “to be mouthpieces for a particular administration’s — or any administration’s — point of view.”

Related: UF faculty union calls for boycotts over academic freedom

Hessy Fernandez, a spokesperson for the university, said UF does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Gainesville, lists UF president Kent Fuchs, provost Joe Glover and the university’s board of trustees as defendants. It takes aim at a university policy stating that any employee activity that “affects, or appears to affect, their professional judgment or obligations to the University” could be conflicts.

The policy, which was amended July 1, 2020, requires faculty members to file a request through a university portal each time they wish to participate in outside activities.

The lawsuit states that two of the professors previously testified as voting rights experts in cases prior to 2020, including those in which the state was a defendant. This time, however, their requests were denied stating it was not in the best interest of the university.

“Discrimination and prior restraint on the basis of viewpoint or content are presumptively unconstitutional,” the lawsuit says.

While the lawsuit acknowledges the decision surrounding the three professors was reversed, the policy remains in place, and that could lead to the same thing happening again, it said.

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

The three professors — Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin — asked for the policy to be declared unlawful, and for the university to be permanently prevented from enforcing any policies that limit activities because they don’t align with the state’s interests.

If no action is taken, the lawsuit said, “the University’s Policy will continue to impede Plaintiffs from serving as expert witnesses or otherwise lending their analysis or expertise to litigation challenging State policies, in violation of the First Amendment.”

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