University of Florida reverses course and allows professors to testify regardless of pay


Update at 2:50 p.m.: The article has been updated to include a written statement from the professors’ attorneys, David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, which was received after publication.

Amid a nationwide controversy, the University of Florida abruptly reversed course on Friday to allow three professors to testify as paid subject matter experts in a voting rights lawsuit against the state.

The university initially refused requests from political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith. The decision departed from the previous one, contradicting previous work approved by UF. Five other professors of law and medicine have also come forward to say that they do not have the right to speak as experts in their field in litigation against the state.

The university’s besieged president, Kent Fuchs, said in a campus-wide email on Friday that he was asking the school’s conflict of interest office to reverse its decision and allow the testimony. At least one of the teachers confirmed that he was subsequently allowed to testify.

“While the University of Florida turned the tide and allowed our clients to testify in this particular case, the fact remains that the university restricted their academic rights and freedoms under the First Amendment, and as long as university policy remains, these rights and freedoms are in jeopardy. Read a statement from the professors’ lawyers, David A. O’Neil and Paul Donnelly.

Fuchs also said that a task force he appointed – made up of professors and administrators – to provide him with recommendations on the matter would report its findings at the end of the month.

The university first said that because it is a public university and the faculties are government employees, it would have been a conflict of interest to allow three eminent professors to testify for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over new voting restrictions to which Governor Ron DeSantis has signed. law earlier this year. He backtracked a bit later when he said the three would be allowed to testify if they lost any compensation.

No evidence emerged that the governor directly played a role in blocking the professors’ testimony. In independent rulings on politically sensitive issues, Fuchs has openly expressed fears that Tallahassee officials would overturn it, and he worried about how choices made on the Gainesville campus might affect the image and funding for the university in the Republican-controlled legislature.

It appeared that Florida – the state’s flagship university – was particularly concerned about these issues. Preliminary results from a survey of every college and university in Florida found no cases outside of UF where professors were not allowed to work as expert witnesses in such cases.

In the federal voting rights lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Thursday blocked plaintiffs’ efforts to question a representative from the governor’s office to see if that played a role in UF’s decision to block testimony teachers. But Walker added he was “not saying there was no problem here,” and openly speculated in his ruling that federal prosecutors could pursue felony witness intimidation charges and said that plaintiffs could pursue the case in civil court.

UF maintains close ties with the governor through the chairman of its board, who is a political donor, and because UF is the state’s flagship university. It became one of the top 5 public universities under DeSantis, in part thanks to generous funding from its administration which has allowed the university to grow and hire hundreds of new faculty.

On Twitter, McDonald confirmed he was officially cleared to testify in the case and posted an image of a civil rights icon who died last year, former Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, with the caption of his famous sentiment, “Enter well difficulty.”

The university’s abrupt decision followed demands announced earlier today by the union representing faculty and staff in Florida, which urged donors to stop sending money to the university and urged others. school administrators to downgrade the UF. recent ranking of the Top 5 American news and World Report.

Already dozens of donors had posted statements on social media over the past week pledging to stop donating until UF reconsiders its decision – and in some cases they have said they demanded reimbursement of recent contributions.

“The university administration must affirm that it will not interfere with the right of any employee to exercise their conscience, academic freedom, rights to free speech and expertise,” the union said. .

The initial decision also created problems with the university’s accreditation body. This group said it was investigating breaches of academic freedom, and all Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation protested the move.

Expert witnesses can charge hundreds of dollars an hour to prepare and testify in court cases. UF’s conflict of interest policy states that employees should avoid situations that interfere with their professional obligations to the university. This includes both paid and unpaid work.

When lawyers contemplate conflicts of interest regarding their own participation in a lawsuit, it doesn’t matter whether they get paid if there are competing interests, said Charles Ehrhardt, professor of law at Florida State University. He was the principal drafter of the Florida Evidence Act, which describes how evidence such as expert witnesses can be used in court.

“I never imagined or ever thought that whether I got paid was a determining factor in whether or not there was a conflict representing a party,” he said.

In 2019, UF has endorsed Smith, chairman of its political science department, to provide expert testimony in a case against DeSantis over voter suppression of former criminals. The UF law professor banned from entering the university Kenneth Nunn to sign an amicus brief in the same case on the basis of a conflict of interest.

“They can have the legal authority to do what they do,” said Jim O’Leary, a lawyer for Bonita Springs. “They may have a perfectly legitimate legal basis, contractually, to prevent them from testifying, but it’s the appearance of non-transparency that concerns me.”

McDonald’s co-wrote a article in 2011 explaining the use of political scientists, like himself, as expert witnesses in litigation. The article said such expertise is needed in commonly contested parts of the electoral process, including political competition and voter behavior.

“Your most valuable asset is your credibility,” the authors wrote.

Micah Johnson provided expert testimony as a UF doctoral student and postdoctoral researcher in forensic sociology. He has been involved in criminal prosecutions against the state and remembers having had more time to navigate the school’s conflict of interest process than in previous years.

Johnson, now a professor at the University of South Florida, has also worked with the UF administration on issues of diversity and inclusion. He said he recognized the university’s sensitive relationship with Tallahassee, but said there was a line between maintaining them and limiting free speech.

“It is extremely useful for the university to allow people to use their research and expertise to strengthen the justice system,” he said.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service from the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. The rapporteur can be contacted at [email protected]

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