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UF's evolving policies on professors testifying in state cases are drawing conservative and liberal concerns about academic freedom

Criser Hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida
Jillian Cain/jccain
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Criser Hall at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida

The University of Florida is facing public headwinds amid reports that it has blocked several professors from testifying in lawsuits against the state. Problems for the school first arose when UF said three of its political science professors couldn’t serve as paid expert witnesses in a voting rights case. The school has since backtracked. Yet, while the situation is being viewed as a free speech issue, some scholars say it's part of broader concerns over academic freedom.

When it comes to the situation unfolding at the University of Florida, the conservative-leaning National Association of Scholars' David Randall says it's untested legal ground.

“There’s a complicated series of legal precedent for issue which Garcetti vs. Ceballos is relevant," said Randall, citing a 2006 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that said public employees do NOT have first amendment protection for speech done as part of their job duties.

In its initial rejection of the professors’ testimony UF noted that it was a public, state institution and that as an extension of the state, the professors’ testimony would pose a conflict of interest. The university later said the professors could testify, but only if they’re unpaid, on their own time, and don’t use school resources. Now the school has changed course again and says the professors CAN testify on their own time and be paid for it—but they still cannot use university resources. Randall says it’s an open legal question whether public higher ed institutions can limit the speech of people they employ.

“Public employees have a responsibility to their employers. But it’s not cut-and-dried," said Randall.

He's watching to see how the situation is resolved.

"Academic freedom and free speech allows students and scholars to challenge ideas and to use our discoveries and expertise for the public good without fear of reprisal," said Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida and a professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Gothard and Randall see UF's high-profile conundrum as part of a broader debate over academic freedom. Gothard says the problem lies in a law approved last year meant to test whether schools are allowing diverse voices, viewpoints, and opinions to be represented and heard on campus.

“While it claims to support greater diversity, it’s designed to track ideas and target speech the political party in power does not like," said Gothard.

He sees the law as an attempt to silence liberal voices, yet Randall sees it as essential to ensuring there’s room for conservative speech in the academic freedom debate.

“The basic situation is that the universities have abandoned academic freedom and the broader public, through intellectual diversity, are trying to restore academic freedom,” he said.

The law has its roots over concerns that conservative voices and thought are being drowned out in public higher education: And Randall says that’s not just a concern—conservative faculty are afraid of speaking out.

“They stay quiet from fear, not mention anything that might be controversial, and try to retire with their pension."

Randall points to policies like one at UF which he says encourages only voices from one side: the school’s inclusionary hiring statement, which he believes has the opposite effect: exclusion of conservatives. That statement includes points like whether a candidate has mentored women or minorities and how candidates will promote diversity.

“We have reached a point where it's not nearly a narrowing of thought but an exclusion of anyone who dissents.”

The union’s Gothard says the UFs effort to stop its professors from testifying in state cases has implications for both sides.

“Both students and teachers alike are intimidated into silence in the classroom.  This law is an Orwellian nightmare that can be turned against liberals and conservatives alike depending on who holds the reins of power. Instead of addressing these very real challenges…the university of Florida is siding with people who want to divide and control Floridians."

University of Florida’s faculty union is calling on donors to withhold money from the school. It’s also calling on the groups that have ranked UF as one of the top institutions in the country to issue downgrades. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredits UF. It says it is investigating whether the decisions on professorial testimony violate its academic freedom standards.