The University of Florida now says three professors who initially weren’t allowed to testify as paid expert witnesses against the state can testify, if they aren’t paid.
The university had denied the professors’ requests to testify for the plaintiffs in a voting rights lawsuit.
The case challenges parts of a new voting law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May. An attorney for the plaintiffs says the legislation “imposes substantial and unjustifiable restrictions on the ability of eligible Floridians to vote and register to vote.”
“Me signing this bill says: Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency and this is a great place for democracy,” DeSantis said after signing the bill.
The university said Monday, “It is worth noting, the university views the professors’ request as a request to be paid to testify against the state, and the university, as a public institution, is part of the state – therefore, that would be adverse to the university’s interests. However, to be clear, if the professors wish to do so pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they would be free to do so.”
The governor’s office said the policy was in place before the law was passed and reiterated that the university can deny requests that “are contrary to the institution’s interests.”
“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,” spokesperson Christina Pushaw said.
According to court records, the university denied Professor Daniel Smith’s request to testify in an October 11 email that stated, “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.”
Smith studies how “political institutions affect political behavior across and within the American states,” according the university’s website.
Sharon Austin is an author and expert on “rural African American political activism” and “African American political behavior,” according to the university, while Michael McDonald studies elections, methodology, and has researched voter turnout.
David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, attorneys for Smith, Austin and McDonald released a statement Tuesday: “By picking and choosing which of its faculty can testify in court as expert witnesses over voting rights, the University of Florida is violating these professors’ constitutional rights in the place where their truthful views are needed most: a United States Courthouse. They have sworn an oath to work on behalf of the people of Florida, not political interests. We will protect the professors’ rights to speak on their own personal time, as citizens and as scholars.”
In a letter sent Monday to the campus community, the university classified the rule as a conflict of interest policy.
“While the existing policy was revised just last year, it is critical to ensure the policy advances the university’s interests while protecting academic freedom,” the letter from UF President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said in announcing a task force to review the policy.
Fuchs and Glover also said that they wanted to make it “abundantly clear” that university officials stand firmly behind the commitment to uphold the right to free speech as well as the right to academic freedom by faculty members.
“Nothing is more fundamental to our existence as an institution of higher learning than these two bedrock principles,” they wrote. “Vigorous intellectual discussions are at the heart of the marketplace of ideas we celebrate and hold so dear.”
CNN’s Gregory Lemos, Kay Jones and Melissa Alonso contributed to this report