‘A significant victory’: UF cannot enforce conflict of interest policy to stop professors from testifying says U.S. Judge

Published: Jan. 21, 2022 at 2:56 PM EST
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WCJB) - A federal judge ruled against the University of Florida on Friday in a case regarding the academic freedom and First Amendment rights of UF professors.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted in part the professors’ motion for a preliminary injunction.

He ruled that UF cannot enforce its conflict of interest policy to prevent faculty and staff from acting as expert witnesses or giving legal consulting in cases involving the State of Florida.

The professors were initially told they could not be witnesses in an ongoing legal challenge against a voting law targeted by civil rights and voting rights groups.

UF reversed the decision to block professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith from testifying in the voting lawsuit after facing backlash and national publicity.

Austin, McDonald and Smith joined three other professors in a subsequent suit, arguing the revised conflict of interest policy violated their First Amendment rights and constrained academic freedom.

“It just confirms my belief that the conflict of interest policy…they said they had revised it but I really think that today’s ruling shows and we always thought that they had to do more than that. So, I was in a way disappointed that they didn’t completely get rid of the conflict of interest policy,” said UF political science professor Dr. Sharon Austin. “I’m very grateful to those people, people anonymously who reached out to us and I want to say them that we are fighting for academic freedom. Today’s ruling was a significant victory and that they have to make sure that they continue to fight to maintain those constitutional rights.”

Dr. Austin encouraged UF administrators to approach the situation in a more inclusive way.

“Listen to the campus community, faculty, staff and students and get their input on this policy and just have larger discussions about academic freedom in general to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again in the future,” Dr. Austin said. “I can speak for all the plaintiffs when I say we are looking forward to working with administration.”

Judge Walker’s ruling does not affect the amicus brief policy that was also brought up in the lawsuit. Walker determined the university could restrict professors from claiming to speak for the UF, but professors can list their affiliation with the university.

The 74 page ruling issued by Walker starts out by comparing the situation at UF to China, where he explains the University of Hong Kong recently removed a statue that had been dedicated to the 1989 protesters killed in Tiananmen Square by Chinese authorities. He wrote that “Some might say, ‘That’s China, it could never happen here.’ But plaintiffs contend it already has.”

In a footnote, Walker added that “if those in UF’s administration find this comparison upsetting, the solution is simple. Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong.”

RELATED STORY: Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties receives documents concerning UF’s “conflict of interest” controversy

David A. O’Neil, legal counsel to the UF professors, released a statement praising the decision.

“Today’s decision is a ringing endorsement of the critical importance of faculty free speech and academic freedom to the health of our democracy. The University may no longer prohibit faculty members from sharing their views with courts and the public just because the ruling political party doesn’t want to hear their truth. The decision sends a clear message to public universities across the country – and to politicians who would try to interfere with them – that they too must honor the constitutional principles that make the college campus a vital engine of a free society,” O’Neil said.

TV20 reached out to UF officials for comment on the ruling. In an email, Hessy Fernandez, a spokesperson for UF, said the university is “reviewing the order and will determine our next steps.”

Professors say their free speech is hindered by the policy.

RELATED STORY: Federal judge denies UF request to drop case concerning professors’ First Amendment rights

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