The three UF political science professors who were previously barred from testifying in a voting rights case filed a lawsuit on Friday against UF President Kent Fuchs, UF Provost Joseph Glover and the university’s board of trustees.
This comes just after President Fuchs asked the UF Conflicts of Interest Office to allow the professors — Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith — to testify and be able to receive compensation for it.
Despite this reversal, the professors and their legal team are pursuing the case, which seeks to have the university’s current conflict of interest policy rendered unlawful on the basis that UF officials violated their First Amendment rights and the concept of academic freedom.
“The university has made no commitment to abandon its policy preventing academics from serving as expert witnesses when the University thinks that their speech may be adverse to the State and whatever political agenda politicians want to promote,” David O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, attorneys for the professors said in a statement. “It is time for this matter to be rightfully adjudicated, not by press release, but in a court of law.”
UF spokesperson Hessy Fernandez wrote in an email that the university does not comment on pending litigation.
Catherine Cameron, professor of law at Stetson University, said the framework for this case is the legal precedent that if a government employee, usually not a figurehead for an institution, speaks as a private citizen on a matter of public concern, the only way that their employer can prevent their speech is if it creates a disruption to the workplace.
“Professors are routinely called on to speak on issues that they research on, and oftentimes their opinions may be at odds with the administration,” Cameron said. “That’s what the concept of academic freedom is designed to protect.”
Howard Wasserman, the associate dean for research and faculty development and professor of law at Florida International University’s College of Law, said that as a public institution UF is bound by the First Amendment in all of its dealings with employees and students but the fact that the university has already decided to allow the professors the chance to testify complicates the case.
“A plaintiff cannot sue solely for the benefit of other people,” Wasserman said. “And a lawsuit also can’t challenge the law in the abstract. So what [the professors and their legal team] are going to have to do is show that there is still a threat to them and to their First Amendment rights from the policies remaining in place.”
Also on Friday, President Fuchs sent a campuswide email announcing the formation of a task force that will address the current conflict of interest policy that allowed for the professors to be denied the opportunity to testify. That task force meets for the first time on Tuesday.
Wasserman said that the existence of the task force means that the current conflict of interest policy may be subject to change soon.
“So that might also cause a court to think that the suit as it now is situated is not the right vehicle at the right time,” he said.