Florida retreats in voting rights case but free speech harm done

After banning professors from testifying against the state in politically charged cases, flagship university can’t escape probes and fears of lasting harm

November 5, 2021
 American students protest to illustrate Florida retreats in voting rights case but free speech harm done
Source: Alamy

The University of Florida is backing away from banning its professors from testifying against the state in a voting rights court case, albeit with nationwide free speech fears and investigations still roiling in its expanding wake.

The 50,000-student public flagship in Gainesville had told three political science professors that they were not authorised to serve as expert court witnesses against the state. Subsequent reports described numerous other professors facing similar warnings against aiding legal challenges opposed by the state’s Republican governor, in areas that include his opposition to mask mandates and voting by convicts.

The university retreated on the voting rights case after its chief accrediting agency – the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges – announced an investigation into the matter.

Florida’s president, Kent Fuchs, and provost, Joseph Glover, said in a note to the community that the professors could join the court action while the university reviews its conflict of interest policy “for consistency and fidelity”.

“It is critical to ensure the policy advances the university’s interests while protecting academic freedom,” the university leaders said.

Only two days earlier, the university said it would not let full-time employees “undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution”.

Both the accreditor, SACS, and the nation’s chief faculty group, the American Association of University Professors, were nevertheless persisting with inquiries into the matter, which experts have called a troubling new marker of political interference in US higher education.

“This does not end our investigation,” Belle Wheelan, president of the SACS Commission on Colleges, said of Florida’s reversal. “We have a process that is in place and the university is trying to respond to our inquiry of what indeed happened.”

The AAUP is considering its own review process, which could lead to censure – a finding that conditions for academic freedom and tenure are so poor that academics should not take appointments at a particular institution. “The AAUP has not yet opened a case at the University of Florida,” a spokesman said, “but it is certainly on the table as the scope of the apparent violations of academic freedom becomes more clear.”

The case centres on three faculty members who agreed to testify in favour of overturning a new law in Florida – similar to those enacted in other conservative-led states following Donald Trump’s electoral defeat last year – that imposes new hurdles on the ability of people to cast votes.

It is among a series of moves by the governor, Ron DeSantis – widely seen as a leading Republican candidate for US president in 2024 – to counter his state’s universities and scholars on key political matters.

The university bowed to the governor’s insistence that it not mandate the use of masks or vaccines to fight Covid, before it barred a professor who sought to testify in court in favour of mask mandates. The governor this year also signed into law a measure allowing public college students to make video or audio recordings of lectures to publicise alleged political bias among faculty.

The state of Florida this year also imposed a requirement for annual surveys of its public college students and faculty to assess their personal viewpoints, with Mr DeSantis suggesting that institutions could face budget cuts if they were found to have promoted the “indoctrination” of students.


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