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U of Florida’s academic freedom reviewed over testimony ban

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The University of Florida has been asked by its accrediting body to explain how denying a request by three professors to serve as paid experts in a voting rights lawsuit conforms to standards for academic freedom and avoids undue political influence.

University leaders prohibited professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin from being paid as expert witnesses in a lawsuit that says Florida’s new elections law harms voting rights. Over the weekend, school officials said such testimony would go against the school’s interest by conflicting with the administration of Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

On Monday, Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, told news outlets the organization planned to investigate the university’s decision.

Smith chairs the university’s political science department, McDonald is a national expert on elections and Austin studies African American political behavior. All have testified in other cases as paid expert witnesses before.

Later Monday, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said in a letter to the campus community that the school will immediately appoint a task force “to review the university’s conflict of interest policy and examine it for consistency and fidelity.”

They said it is critical that the policy advances the university’s interests while protecting academic freedom. They also said the professors are free “to testify pro bono on their own time without using university resources.”

The university “has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so,” their letter said.

In response to the university leaders’ letter, attorneys for the professors said Tuesday that they’ll fight for the scholars’ right “to speak on their own personal time, as citizens and as scholars.”

“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,” said the statement from attorneys David O’Neil and Paul Donnelly. “They have sworn an oath to work on behalf of the people of Florida, not political interests.”

The 10 Democratic members of Florida’s congressional delegation on Tuesday condemned the decision in a letter to Fuchs.

“We urge you to reconsider this ‘prior restraint’ on speech that violates the First Amendment as well as the deeply rooted principles of academic freedom that we know you and the University of Florida community hold so dear,” said the letter issued by the office of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

As part of the accrediting body’s investigation into whether the university violated the “academic freedom” and “undue political influence” standards, officials will be asked to provide more details about the decision to deny the professors’ request, the Miami Herald reported.

Wheelan said findings are expected no later than June 2022, and the university could face no action, a warning, be further monitored, placed on probation or lose its accreditation.

UF’s president answers to its Board of Trustees, which has six members appointed by the governor and five appointed by the state university system’s Board of Governors. The Board of Governors, in turn, has 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Florida governor and confirmed by the state Senate. These offices have been in Republican hands for many years.

DeSantis’ office, in a statement released Monday, denied being behind the decision to block the faculty members’ testimony.

“The fact remains that all public universities, including UF, have policies around situations where conflicts of interest may arise, including paid testimony in a lawsuit,” DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw said in a statement.

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