UF professors can testify in voting rights lawsuit if they do not receive pay, officials say

Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 6:47 PM EDT
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - UF officials barred three professors from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit last week.

Now, the university is responding to first amendment complaints, saying this is about whether the professors are paid for this testimony.

The lawsuit challenges Senate Bill 90, Florida’s latest voting law.

It’s intended to strengthen voter security, but many argue it restricts voting rights.

Professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin would be testifying against the state, but university officials said since UF is a state institution, the testimony would go against the university’s own interests.

“I think there’s this subtext of possibly having government monies and fundings withheld if the testimony is adverse to the state of Florida,” said Clay Calvert, a UF law professor and First Amendment expert.

Some students said they think this is a violation of the professors’ first amendment rights.

Others said there are protocols professors have to follow if they want to profit from outside paid work, and if they aren’t followed, the university has the right to step in.

A statement from Governor DeSantis’ office said: “The constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but not the right to receive compensation for speech... The UF policy that requires professors to seek approval for paid outside work to prevent conflicts of interest was established well before SB 90 and the lawsuit; therefore, it could not have been a reaction to this case.”

Meanwhile, one of the SB 90′s sponsors, North Central Florida State Senator Dennis Baxley, said it’s not his place to testify in favor of the legislation.

“It’s the court’s turn, I got all that on the table and it’s the court’s turn,” said Baxley.

Calvert said if the professors give expert testimony without being paid it could set a precedent moving forward.

“To condition testimony upon it being non paid, kind of conflicts with generally what we think of expert testimony and how that occurs,” he said.

In a statement from UF they said: “It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”

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