The University of Florida told three professors hired to testify as expert witnesses in a voting rights case against the state that they cannot participate.
The University of Florida told the professors “that they were not authorized to serve as experts on behalf of Plaintiffs in this matter as part of their ‘outside activities,’” according to court documents filed Friday in the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Tallahassee Division.
The case challenges parts of Florida’s Senate Bill 90, which an attorney for the plaintiffs says “imposes substantial and unjustifiable restrictions on the ability of eligible Floridians to vote and register to vote.”
The law added restrictions such as new ID requirements for voting by mail, limiting who can return a completed mail-in ballot, prohibiting the use of nonprofit and private funds to conduct elections, expanding partisan observation power during ballot tabulation and creating additional restrictions for drop box use, CNN previously reported.
“The University told Dr. Smith that ‘outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida,’ and provided similar explanations for Dr. McDonald … and Dr. Austin,” the court document says.
Dr. Sharon Austin is an author and expert on “rural African American political activism” and “African American political behavior,” according to her page on the University of Florida website, while Dr. Michael McDonald studies elections, methodology and has researched voter turnout. Dr. Daniel Smith studies how “political institutions affect political behavior across and within the American states.”
“We will not back down from this attack on our academic freedoms to speak out on our own time, on matters of great public importance,” McDonald told CNN in a statement.
CNN also contacted Austin and Smith, but did not immediately hear back.
“The Governor’s Office’s assertion that the University of Florida’s decisions relating to the participation of its employees in this litigation implicates the ‘legislative privilege’ is nonsensical,” the motion said.
In a statement provided to CNN, a University of Florida spokesperson said the university “has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so.”
“It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution,” spokesperson Hessy Fernandez said.
Governor’s office says policy in place before SB-90
The office of Gov. Ron DeSantis responded Monday to CNN’s request for comment.
“UF, like many institutions, has a long-standing policy in place regarding conflicts of interest. UF policy states that professors must receive approval for paid outside work. Requests to undertake paid outside work that UF believes is contrary to the institution’s interests may not be approved,” press secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in an email.
Pushaw said the university’s policy was in place before the passage of SB-90.
“For the record, the UF policy was last updated a year ago, prior to SB 90 – so the university’s policy could not possibly have been a reaction to this lawsuit. The Governor’s Office did not make UF’s policy, and there is zero evidence to suggest otherwise,” she said.
CNN’s Carma Hassan, Gregory Lemos and Mel Alonso
contributed to this report.