UF professors can’t testify in Florida voting rights case

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for free speech for faculty at universities and colleges across Florida, the University of Florida has refused to allow three political science professors to continue serving as expert witnesses in a case that challenges new state law restricting access to voting.

On cases before the state, political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael MacDonald and Sharon Austin were told via emails earlier this month that their applications to serve as experts will now be denied. They were seeking permission to serve as experts on the case to challenge Senate Act 90, passed by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature in the wake of the 2020 election.

“Outside activities that may constitute a conflict of interest for the Florida Executive Branch are creating conflict for the University of Florida,” David Richardson, dean of the UF College of Arts and Sciences wrote in response to Smith’s request.

Smith is chair of the political science department at the UF. MacDonald is a national election expert who studies Austin’s political behavior of African Americans.

Gary Wimst, the UF’s assistant vice president for conflicts of interest, provided a similar response for MacDonald and Austin.

“The UF will reject the requests of its employees to engage in outside activities when it determines that the activities are contrary to its interests. Since the UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is against the interests of the UF.”

Paul Donnelly, the professors’ attorney, called the UF’s decision “retaliatory” behavior that “goes to the core of academic freedom” and undermines their rights to free speech.

“It’s a profound, frightening, frightening change in policy,” he said. “What would happen if another party was in power and could participate in this kind of oversight.”

Donnelly said attorneys for plaintiffs in the voting rights case brought by Florida Rising and other voting rights groups raised their concerns in the document filed in the US District Court for the Northern District of Florida on Friday in the case.

He said he hoped the federal judge would address their concerns and the UF would change its position, but if he did not, they would consider filing a lawsuit in federal court, alleging infringement of academic freedom and First Amendment rights, and seek a preliminary injunction.

In a statement issued to the Miami Herald by UF Vice President of Communications, Steve Orlando, the school denied the infringement of the professors’ free speech rights.

The University of Florida has a proven track record of supporting freedom of expression and academic freedom for our faculty, and we will continue to do so.

“It is important to note that the university did not deny First Amendment rights or academic freedom to professors Dan Smith, Michael MacDonald, and Sharon Austin. Instead, the university has denied requests from these full-time employees to undertake paid outside work that would conflict with the university’s interests as a state institution of Florida.”

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a letter dated October 13 to Wimsett, ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley told the university that “there is no doubt that Dr. Smith will speak as a private citizen, and not as an employee of the university.” He also argued that Smith should be allowed to testify because the issue was receiving so much public attention.

“The principles of academic freedom significantly reduce the scope of the legitimate prerogative of government in the discourse of police professors on matters of public interest,” he wrote.

Florida United College, the union representing 25,000 higher education professionals, condemned the decision in an email to university officials on Tuesday, and again in a statement issued after a story about it was first reported late Friday by the New York Times. .

“We stand with our members and their duty to share their experiences for the greater good,” the statement said. We stand with all Florida residents and their right to criticize their government. If the UF does not overturn its decision, it will set a shocking precedent for any Florida citizen working for local or state government.”

Austin, a steady professor, said it is Among only 2% of black professors in the country will fight for the right to speak. UF urged “It is not subject to pressure from external forces at the state level.”

“For me, this relates to my role as an African American Guide,” Austin said in a statement cited in the UFF news release. “A Southern black woman not fighting for voting rights is a sale to her community. 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.”

Smith also vowed to fight.

“This is truly an absolutely amazing, complete reflection of the green light that the UF administration has always given me to advance voting rights for all Florida residents,” he said in a statement. “We will not back down from this attack on our First Amendment rights to speak out in our time, on matters of great public importance.”

Professors have provided expert testimony in numerous lawsuits, and Smith and MacDonald have also provided expertise in previous cases against the state of Florida.

A week before MacDonald turned down his request to serve as an expert, Smith, chair of the political science department at the University of Florida, and MacDonald, an expert on redistricting who is also a professor in the department, wrote an opinion: published in the Tampa Bay Times accusing Republican leaders of using outside contracts to deliberately protect Redistricting data and mapping details from the public.

Lawmakers vehemently denied the allegations and demanded that the column be retracted.

Donnelly now says the timing of what he considers revenge is important.

“When a person engages in an activity protected under the First Amendment, as the professors have done with an opening article or have done in their testimony, if an unconstitutional action by the government is taken near that, that is evidence of a violation of constitutional rights,” he said.

Smith was originally told he could no longer participate as an expert witness in July, according to correspondence in documents filed in federal court. But MacDonald and Austin’s denials came after the opinion piece.

Senate Bill 90 made changes to state election laws, such as limiting the use of drop ballots and preventing people from possessing more than two mail-in voting cards, which is already illegal in Miami-Dade County.

Prosecutors in the case argue that the law is unconstitutional and intended to suppress minority voting. Last week, the state asked a federal judge to block subpoenas requiring seven Republican lawmakers and a representative from DeSantis’ office to testify about their role in setting the law. The governor’s office claimed that executive privilege prevented his office from testifying.

Smith was the most prolific of the three masters in his work with experts challenging the Republican-controlled state government.

Daniel Smith, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Florida, has often served as an expert witness on election-related laws challenges in Florida. Courtesy of Dan Smith

He has been a key figure in the litigation surrounding Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment that Florida passed in 2018 that allowed all people convicted of crimes to have the right to vote, provided they complete “all conditions” of their sentence.

Initially hailed as one of the largest civil rights expansion in the country in decades, it was pared back when the state legislature, at DeSantis’ insistence, passed a law sharply setting “all terms” of punishment by requiring criminals to pay all court debts before they could that. to vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued, claiming the bill was unconstitutional. The ACLU hired Smith to study the effects of the bill and compiled the most comprehensive database on Florida criminals, concluding that nearly 80% of them would not be able to vote because they owed court fees, fines or compensation to victims. Most of them owe more than $1,000, a sum out of reach for people who are already struggling to find work after being convicted of a felony.

“The roof is stacked against them,” Smith said in his testimony.

A federal judge in Tallahassee sided against the state, but the decision was overturned by an Atlanta appeals court.

Prior to the 2020 election, Smith also worked as a mail-in ballot expert, in a lawsuit that forced the state to provide Spanish-language ballots to Hispanic voters. He filed a written report with the League of Women Voters to Extend Early Voting in Florida and also testified against the UF in a case that led to the overturn of a ban on early voting places on Florida campuses.

IMG_fl-early-oting-star_2_1_KOEO2JTE_L428480094.JPG
Early voting began Monday, October 22, 2018 at Nova Southeastern University in Davie. Susan Stocker South Florida Sun Sentinel

From 2012 to 2014, Smith provided analysis and testimony in a redistricting lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs.

Donnelly said he has worked with University of Florida faculty as expert witnesses for three decades, an activity the university has always encouraged and a way for faculty to increase their salaries.

“At the University of Florida, that brings the university more fame and respect, and these are faculty members who work in public institutions, so the pay in general is not comparable to private institutions,” he said. “So it was routinely encouraged.”

Andrew Gotthard, president of the UFF, warned in an email to UF President Kent Fuchs that the union may be willing to take legal action if professors are not allowed to exercise their academic freedom and constitutional right to free speech.

“Otherwise, United College of Florida will take all necessary legal, contractual and legislative measures to ensure that the fundamental principles of American freedom and democracy are protected at the University of Florida, now and in the future,” Gothard said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and MaryEllenKlas

This story was originally published October 30, 2021 2:00 p.m.

Mary Ellen Claes is director of the state capitol bureau for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative reporting and accountability. In 2018-2019, Mary Ellen was Nieman’s Fellow at Harvard University and was the recipient of the 2019 Murrey Marder Nieman Fellowship in Watchdog Journalism. In 2018, she received the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The State House Herald office is a joint operation with State House staff at the Tampa Bay Times. Please support her work with a digital subscription. You can reach her at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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Miami Herald real-time/breaking news reporter Howard Cohen, winner of the 2017 Media Excellence Awards, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and public assignments. He began his career in the features department of the Miami Herald in 1991.
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