Florida professors win free speech court battle

Backing university professors seeking to testify in voting case against state, federal judge compares US conservatives to Chinese dictators

January 21, 2022
Courtroom seal of Florida illustrating news article about voting rights
Source: iStock

A federal judge has backed three University of Florida professors demanding the right to testify in a voting rights case against state, calling them victims of conservative US free-speech crackdowns similar to those of China.

In a ruling that opened with an extended comparison to the removal of a Tiananmen Square statue from the University of Hong Kong, the judge, Mark Walker, said Florida administrators had no right to block faculty from serving as expert court witnesses.

“Some might say, ‘That’s China; it could never happen here,’” Judge Walker, an Obama administration appointee, said of Florida’s free-speech restrictions. “But plaintiffs contend it already has.”

The professors – Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith – are political scientists who had planned to testify in court on behalf of opponents of a new state law in Florida toughening conditions for voting in elections by mail.

University of Florida leaders forbade them, saying they did not want to anger the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, an outspoken conservative seen as a top candidate for the 2024 US presidential election.

The university backed off under public condemnation, but the professors persisted with their case, saying they wanted a definitive court ruling on their behalf to prevent the university from resuming its restrictions once public attention subsided.

Subsequent reports have described several other cases in which the university has restricted academic freedom in areas that include offering expert courtroom testimony, research related to Covid, and classroom instruction concerning racial equity.

Judge Walker, serving in the federal court system’s Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee, ruled earlier in the month that the case brought by the professors could proceed even after the university backtracked on its prohibition.

In his latest ruling, he granted the request of the professors for a preliminary injunction against the university’s imposing any limits on faculty or staff serving as expert witnesses or providing legal consulting in litigation involving the state of Florida.

The University of Florida had no immediate comment on the matter. “We are reviewing the order and will determine our next steps,” said a university spokeswoman.

Judge Walker opened his 74-page ruling by spending three of those pages recounting in detail last month’s removal from the University of Hong Kong campus of the Pillar of Shame statue commemorating those killed in 1989 Tiananmen Square protests against the Chinese government, and the corresponding loss of status of the formerly “excellent” Hong Kong university system through the political co-opting of their leaders.

Similarly, the judge wrote, the University of Florida leaders appear to have submitted to vorauseilender Gehorsam – anticipatory obedience – by having “sanctioned the unconstitutional suppression of ideas out of favour with Florida’s ruling party”.

The University of Florida’s president, Kent Fuchs, announced earlier this month that he would step down in the coming year and return to his role as a professor of electrical and computer engineering.


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