ORLANDO, Florida (AP) – Reversing its previous position, the University of Florida said Friday that it will allow three professors to testify as experts in a lawsuit contesting a new land election law that critics say will Restricts voting rights.
Last month the University banned Dan Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin from testifying in civic groups’ lawsuit on the grounds that such a testimony would bring the school into conflict with the government of Republican Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, who did the Electoral law enforced. More than half of the university’s curators are appointed by the governor.
In a letter to campus, University President Kent Fuchs said he was asking the department responsible for approving external work by professors to give the go-ahead for their request to serve as expert witnesses in the litigation. Fuchs said the outside work had to be done in the professors’ free time and not use the university’s resources.
Lawyers representing the professors said they would consider their options after the reversal.
“While the University of Florida reversed course and allowed our clients to testify on this particular case, the fact remains that the university has curtailed its rights and academic freedoms under the First Amendment, and as long as the university’s policies remain in place endangers these rights and freedoms, “said David O’Neil and Paul Donnelly in a statement.
The university’s announcement came after the faculty union urged donors to withhold contributions, as well as academics and artists to decline invitations to campus until the university administration confirmed the freedom of expression for school staff.
Not letting them testify would be “an attack on us all,” said Paul Ortiz, a history professor who is president of the union federation at the university.
Hours later, after hearing about the reversal, Ortiz called the announcement “a really positive step forward” and said the union federation’s executive committee would meet to decide how to proceed.
“I’m happy to see that,” said Ortiz. “We want some sort of guarantee that this doesn’t happen on a case-by-case basis – if another faculty member says, ‘I want to be part of this type of activity,’ we won’t stop.”
The union also asked the university to apologize, reiterate its support for the right to vote and state that the school serves the common good.
Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said in a letter to the campus community earlier this week that the school would immediately appoint a task force “to review the university’s conflict of interest policies and check for consistency and fidelity.” On Friday, Fuchs said a preliminary recommendation would be in place by the end of the month.
Also this week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools commission told news outlets that the organization was planning to investigate the university’s earlier decision to forbid professors from testifying.
The President of the University of Florida reports to his board of trustees, which consists of six members appointed by the governor and five appointed by the board of governors of the state university system. The Board of Governors, in turn, consists of 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Florida Governor and approved by the State Senate. These offices have been in Republican hands for many years.
In a statement this week, the DeSantis office denied sponsoring the decision to block faculty testimony.
Florida Democratic elected officials, many of whom attended the University of Florida, criticized the university’s initial rejection of professors ‘requests and linked it to other controversial recent decisions by the school, such as the quick hiring of DeSantis’ election as Florida surgeon in general . Dr. Joseph Ladapo recently came under fire for refusing to put on a mask at a meeting with a lawmaker being treated for cancer.
“The swift reversal of these ill-considered policies will restore the pride and integrity of the Gator Nation of which I am so incredibly proud,” said Democratic US MP Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a statement. “Go Gators!”
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