An accreditation body is investigating the University of Florida's decision preventing professors from being paid witnesses in a voting rights case.
CNN  — 

Attorneys for three University of Florida professors will fight the school’s order that the instructors cannot be paid for any expert testimony they provide in a court case against the state, they said Tuesday.

The university had denied the professors’ requests to testify for plaintiffs as paid witnesses in a voting rights lawsuit against the state, citing a university policy it says attempts to prevent conflicts of interest.

It has said they can testify if they aren’t paid.

The university’s decision to prevent the professors “from giving standard expert testimony, and instead only allowing pro bono testimony, undermines their credibility as expert witnesses and chills their speech,” two attorneys for the professors said Tuesday in a prepared statement to CNN.

The university is violating the professors’ constitutional rights, argue the attorneys, David A. O’Neal and Paul Donnelly.

“Historically, faculty from the University of Florida have regularly served as expert witnesses in court proceedings, sharing their expertise on a broad range of topics. Now, when three professors’ testimony may threaten politicians’ political agendas, the university has abruptly ignored its longstanding policy and practice, violating the professors’ First Amendment rights and denying their academic freedom,” they said.

Meantime, an investigation is underway into the university’s decision to prevent the professors from being paid witnesses by a commission that accredits the University of Florida and similar institutions, the body said Tuesday.

The university on Monday announced a task force to review its policy on such matters, top school officials announced.

The institution that day also said “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,” its statement reads.

The Advisory Council of Faculty Senates, a group that represents faculty from all 12 public universities in Florida, unanimously signed a resolution expressing “deep alarm” over “what appears to be a serious breach of academic freedom.”

The resolution was read aloud at a Florida Board of Governors meeting, the governing body for state universities.

Speaking on behalf of the council, Professor William Self called for the University of Florida to reconsider its decision.

“When they are denied the right to participate, not only does it undermine both freedom of inquiry and the independence of the university, it denies the citizens of the state, to whom the university is ultimately responsible, access to the most current and independent knowledge available on the issue under consideration,” said Self, the council’s chair. “In these recently publicized instances, faculty in a variety of disciplines attempted to engage in professional activity consistent with the principles of academic freedom that have been protected in the United States for over 100 years.”

The voting rights case and the university’s decision

The voting rights case centers on a Florida law signed in May by Gov. Ron DeSantis. It added ID requirements for voting by mail, limited who can return a completed mail-in ballot, prohibited the use of nonprofit and private funds to conduct elections, expanded partisan observation power during ballot tabulation and created additional restrictions for drop box use.

The legislation “imposes substantial and unjustifiable restrictions on the ability of eligible Floridians to vote and register to vote,” said an attorney for the plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit.

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,” court records show.

The university “provided similar explanations for” Professors Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald, the court document says.

Smith studies how “political institutions affect political behavior across and within the American states,” according the university’s website.

Austin is an author and expert on “rural African American political activism” and “African American political behavior,” according to the university, while McDonald studies elections, methodology, and has researched voter turnout.

In a letter sent Monday to the campus community, the university classified its 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 university President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said in announcing the task force.

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.”

The governor’s office said the policy was in place before the voting requirements 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 (the passage of the voting requirements law) – 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.

Accreditation body investigating university

An accreditation body is investigating the university’s decision to prevent the professors from being paid witnesses, it said.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits degree-granting colleges in Southern states, including the University of Florida, will look into whether the university is in compliance of “academic freedom” standards and “undo political influence” standards, association President Belle Wheelan said.

The association has sent a letter to the university’s president, asking for information about the matter, and the university has until December 7 to respond, Wheelan said.

If the university does not show it is compliant, the accreditation body will send the case to a committee, which would recommend whether association should take action, Wheelan said.

Potential action could be as severe as dropping the university from membership, in which case the university would lose accreditation and federal funding, Wheelan said.

The association also could warn the university, put it on probation, monitor the situation for a while or decide the university is in compliance, she said.

In response to the investigation, a university spokesperson said that like the association, “the University of Florida places the highest importance on freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

“We welcome the opportunity to address all questions,” the university spokesperson said.

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Gregory Lemos, Kay Jones and Melissa Alonso contributed to this report