University of Florida Now Says Professors Can Testify in Election Law Case if Unpaid


The University of Florida (UF) has modified their previous position prohibiting faculty and staff participating in activities in a professional capacity deemed against the interests of, or in conflict with, the state of Florida.

The Ocala Star Banner reported late Sunday that UF would allow three professors to serve as expert witnesses in a case that challenges a new state law restricting voting access if they are not paid and don’t use university time or resources.

Previously, the university stated that three professors connected to the lawsuit challenging Florida’s new election integrity law signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier in 2021 would not be allowed to appear as expert witnesses.

However, on Sunday, Hessy Fernandez, UF director of issues management and crisis communications, told the Gainesville Sun that the professors’ request to do outside work for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit as harmful to the university’s interests. But, she added, “if the professors wish to do so pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they would be free to do so.”

Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin are political science professors who have previously served as expert witnesses in the case but were recently told they would no longer be permitted to do so. The legal challenge is regarding SB 90 signed in May.

Two UF officials offered their perspective and the reasoning for rejecting the professors’ request to testify.

“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,’’ said David Richardson, dean of UF’s college of arts and sciences.

Similarly, Gary Wimsett, chair of UF’s political science department, also said the case could undermine the interests of the university.

“UF will deny its employees’ requests to engage in outside activities when it determines the activities are adverse to its interests,” said Wimsett. “As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.”

The professors, and the attorneys representing them, have said they will fight for their ability to testify all while saying the actions of the university are in contrast to free speech protections.

“It is a profound, chilling, frightening change in policy,’’ said Paul Donnelly, attorneys for the professors. “What would happen if another party was in control and could engage in this kind of censorship?”

The United Faculty of Florida, a union representing higher education professionals, criticized UF and have offered support to the professors.

“A Southern Black woman who is not fighting for voting rights is a sell-out to her community,” said Austin through the professors’ union. “I refuse to teach my students that it is important to fight for voting and civil rights and then not fight for those rights myself.”

Since SB 90 was signed, it has endured months of legal challenges from civil rights groups claiming the bill is a new kind of “Jim Crow law.”

However, numerous Florida officials and national Republican groups have pushed back against the narrative and have said Florida has some of the strongest election integrity laws in the country.

The inspiration of the law came from a 2012 grand jury where the jury provided a list of recommendations to Florida legislators. The recommendations came as a result of an election fraud case, and many of them were included in SB 90.

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Grant Holcomb is a reporter at the Florida Capital Star and the Star News Network. Follow Grant on Twitter and direct message tips.
Photo “University of Florida” by Spohpatuf CC BY-SA 3.0.

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