University of Florida overturns ruling, will allow professors to testify as paid experts in voting rights case
In an email sent to the campus community on Friday, university president Kent Fuchs explained that he is asking the university’s conflict of interest office to overturn decisions on recent requests for UF employees to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which the State of Florida is a party and to approve claims regardless of personal compensation.
Fuchs ‘overthrow comes after receiving public criticism for refusing professors’ requests to testify for plaintiffs as paid witnesses in a case that challenges parts of a new voting law signed by the governor Ron DeSantis in May.
The university denied Professor Daniel Smith’s request for testimony in an October 11 e-mail which stated: “Outside activities which 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 to Professors Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald.
The the university did not respond to CNN’s question about what led to the reversal. This week, Fuchs also declined to comment on criticism of political influence on campus.
“While the University of Florida reversed course and allowed our clients to testify in this particular case, the fact remains that the University restricted their academic rights and freedoms under the First Amendment, and as long as the policy of the University remains, these rights and freedoms are at risk. We continue to assess our options, “lawyers for the professors said in a statement to CNN.
The union representing faculty on campus, United Faculty of Florida-University of Florida, called today’s announcement a step forward
“However, UFF-UF seeks a clear and unambiguous commitment to academic freedom in the future,” said Paul Ortiz, President of UFF-UF.
Just hours before the university president announced the overturned decision, the union demanded the university to apologize and launched a call to action focused on defending academic freedom and freedom of expression.
The union and faculty pointed to the undue political influence behind the university’s initial decision.
The governor’s office said he “has not been and will not be involved in UF’s internal policies.”
“The university is free to apply its own conflict of interest policies for the faculty as the UF administration sees fit. This has always been our position, and we do not even understand the origin of the widespread account that the governor was interfering in one way or another with an internal matter of the UF. This is false, has always been false, and there is no evidence for it, only allegations without foundation, ”said Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for DeSantis.
‘It’s like you’re being censored, says the teacher
Two professors at the center of the controversy said the fight was not over.
Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin told CNN’s Leyla Santiago that the university president’s decision does not alleviate some of the underlying issues. Another professor could be barred from testifying as an expert witness in the future, they said.
“They’ve only made one exception for us to the policy that currently exists within UF that experts like us can testify at our own pace,” McDonald said.
The professors indicated that they were exploring other “cures” and expressed disappointment at what they described as a lack of communication from the university, indicating that no one in the administration had them. contacted to provide clarification or explanation.
While other professors have complained about undue political influence on campus, McDonald’s and Austin have focused on academic freedom and First Amendment rights.
“I worked for the Democrats, I worked for the Republicans in these lawsuits, and if either party tries to bend the rules in their favor, I want to stand up for democracy and I want to stand up for the It just seemed natural to me that constitutionally we need to stand up for freedom of speech, ”said McDonald.
Austin was particularly excited to testify as it was to be his first time as a paid expert witness.
“It’s like you’re being censored, like you don’t really have the right to express your voice when you’ve been asked to serve in a capacity and you feel like you’re not allowed to and you feel like you are going to be punished if you participate in promoting the rights that everyone in this country should have, ”she said.
“Right now I’m not asking for an apology. I just wanted what I felt was wrong to be fixed,” Austin said.
In his email Friday afternoon, Fuchs outlined details of a new working group created to review UF’s conflict of interest policy.
“I look forward to reporting on the recommendations of the working group and my decision on how UF will apply the policy on conflicts of interest and conflicts of employment in future requests for approval of similar outside activities. “Fuchs wrote.
Legislation on the right to vote
“Me signing this bill says: Florida, your vote counts, your vote will be cast with integrity and transparency and this is a great place for democracy,” DeSantis said after signing the bill.
But plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuit said the legislation “places substantial and unjustifiable restrictions on the ability of eligible Floridians to vote and register to vote.”