In Florida, a firestorm over silenced university professors grows
By Michael Wines
A decision by the University of Florida to bar three professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis has ballooned into a political and public relations firestorm, one that could grow as other professors consider whether to step forward with stories of university pressure.
Since last Friday, when the university’s decision was disclosed in a federal court filing, five more professors have offered accounts of being barred from testifying or ordered to omit mention of their university positions in court statements.
The body that accredits the university has opened an inquiry into whether its orders violate long-established principles of academic freedom or involve “undue political influence.” On Monday, the university’s president and provost ordered a review of its policy on conflicts of interest, the stated rationale for the decisions to silence the professors.
“The University of Florida stands firmly behind its commitment to uphold our most sacred right as Americans, the right to free speech, and to faculty members’ right to academic freedom,” they said in a statement. “Nothing is more fundamental to our existence as an institution.”
A spokesperson for DeSantis said he had not played any role in the university’s actions. “This is an internal UF issue and not the sort of thing that the executive branch would be involved in,” the spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, said. “Gov. DeSantis has always championed free speech, open inquiry and viewpoint diversity on college and university campuses.”
Asked Wednesday whether the administration had any role in the university’s actions, a university spokesperson, Hessy Fernandez, replied with a single word: “No.”
Despite the denials, a legion of critics continued to say that the university’s actions bore the marks of political meddling. In each of the disclosed cases, the conflict of interest that was cited as justification for limiting the professors’ freedom to speak was that they were supporting legal challenges to the DeSantis administration’s policies.
“It’s creating an environment which is putting intolerable pressure on universities and other institutions as well to comply with the political policies of this administration, for sure,” said Dr. Jeffrey L. Goldhagen, a longtime professor and administrator at the university’s College of Medicine in Jacksonville. “I don’t think there’s any questions about that.”
Goldhagen, a pediatrics expert, said he was denied permission to submit a sworn statement this summer in lawsuits contesting the DeSantis administration’s ban on mandating masks in schools. He said he submitted a declaration anyway.
“I had no option, personally or professionally,” he said. “I’ve always made decisions based on what’s best for children.”
A second university professor who was blocked from participating in the mask lawsuits has declined to be named or speak about the issue.
Goldhagen’s disclosure added fuel to a controversy that has triggered a flood of condemnation from academics and free speech experts. More than 80 professors who regularly testify in lawsuits accused the university of “a serious violation of academic freedom and faculty speech rights.” A bevy of academic organizations asked the university to reverse itself. Florida Democrats in the House of Representatives demanded an explanation.
Universities have almost never tried to interfere in faculty roles in litigation. In 2019, Plymouth State University in New Hampshire paid $350,000 to avoid a lawsuit by a professor who was fired after testifying for the defense in a contentious criminal case over a charge of child sexual abuse.
In 2016, a University of Florida professor claimed that lawyers for the state sought to force him to withdraw academic journal submissions that supported Georgia in a long-running dispute over water rights.
As governor, DeSantis appoints six of the 13 University of Florida trustees, and the board’s chairman is a prominent Republican donor and DeSantis adviser. The chair, Morteza Hosseini, arranged this fall for the university to hire and grant tenure to a California professor whom the governor quickly named his surgeon general.
DeSantis made a rare trip to Gainesville in September to trumpet the news that the University of Florida had been named one of the top five public universities in the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report.
But he also has suggested that universities are an arm of the liberal political establishment in need of restraining. In June, he signed legislation requiring public universities to ask both university faculty and students about their political viewpoints, suggesting they are intolerant of conservative perspectives.
The controversy over silencing professors arose on Friday, when a court filing disclosed that the university had barred three political science professors from offering expert testimony in a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s new elections law. The law sharply limits the use of ballot drop boxes, makes it harder to receive absentee ballots and places new requirements on voter registration drives.
The experts would have offered evidence that the changes would affect voter turnout, particularly among Black people. But university officials blocked them, saying that testifying would pose a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida” and to the university.
Four more professors at the university’s law school were told last year that they could not identify themselves as University of Florida academics in a court brief opposing a state law that raised barriers to restoring voting rights for felons. The Miami Herald, which previously reported the actions, said that of 93 professors nationwide who joined the brief, those four were the only ones who did not include their university affiliations.
The University of Florida’s explanation of its actions has confounded its critics. Officials said they had relied on new conflict-of-interest guidelines issued in November 2020, although the law professors were told the previous July that they could not join a court brief unless they omitted their university affiliation.
In the case of the three political science professors, university officials contended that they had not restricted their free speech rights or academic freedom, but only barred them from undertaking “paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”
DeSantis’ spokesperson echoed that argument in her statement, saying the Constitution “guarantees the right to free speech, but there is no right to profit from speech.”
But Goldhagen, the pediatrics expert, said he was barred from submitting a court declaration in August even though he was not being paid for it and was never asked whether he was being paid.
Academic freedom and free speech experts said the distinction between paid and unpaid statements was legally irrelevant, noting that professors nationwide have long been paid for expert testimony, even in lawsuits opposing state interests.