- The University of Florida temporarily may not stop its professors from participating in lawsuits against the state, a federal judge ruled Friday.
- U.S. District Judge Mark Walker wrote in a scathing order that the institution cannot enforce elements of its conflict-of-interest policy that would potentially prevent faculty from serving as expert witnesses or consulting on cases against Florida. The public university drew national ire late last year when it initially blocked three professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the state's law restricting voting rights, saying their participation was "adverse" to the institution's interests.
- The academics sued, resulting in the preliminary injunction Walker granted Friday. University spokesperson Steve Orlando said in an email officials are reviewing the order and determining next steps.
Revelations that the state's flagship institution denied the three professors' request to provide expert testimony stoked a nationwide debate over faculty free speech rights and the lengths to which colleges will go to appease lawmakers who control state purse strings.
The new voting rights law was championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and it was widely speculated the university did not want to risk his and other state leaders' wrath.
Amid the furor, university leaders allowed the faculty — Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith — to testify in the lawsuit and revised the institution's conflict-of-interest policy.
But this did not placate the professors, who moved forward with their legal complaint, which three other faculty members joined in November. The new trio said the university had similarly denied their requests to take part in potentially hot-button lawsuits.
The academics argue the university's rule is unconstitutional. Walker sided with them in a 74-page opinion, writing that though the revised policy is "adorned with the trappings of a fair and balanced rule," it is not materially different, and is so vaguely written that it gives the university wide discretion to turn down requests to participate in lawsuits.
Walker also likened the U of Florida's actions to the University of Hong Kong, a globally renowned institution with a poor record on academic freedom. It is known for denying outspoken professors tenure and stifling their speech for political reasons, Walker wrote.
Some may say these restrictions would not occur in the U.S., Walker wrote, but the professors contend they already have. They argue the university has "bowed to perceived pressure from Florida's political leaders and has sanctioned the unconstitutional suppression of ideas out of favor with Florida's ruling party."
A recent U of Florida faculty-produced report details how professors routinely feel the need to self-censor. A faculty senate committee heard reports of academics who steered away from race-related research or were asked to rework curricula to avoid conflicts with state lawmakers, it states.
Walker had already expressed skepticism over some of the university's tactics. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that an attorney representing the institution and top officials referred to the three original professors who sued as having "unclean hands" during a hearing on the case this month. Walker deemed this an attack on the professors.
He wrote in his order the university may not administer the conflict-of-interest policy "until otherwise ordered." The injunction takes effect immediately.
In a statement, a lawyer representing the six professors celebrated the ruling.
"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," the lawyer, David O'Neil, said.
U of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced this month he will step down, likely by early 2023. A statement from the university said Fuchs' departure was planned starting in August, before the scandal unfolded.