University changes course; professors may testify in lawsuit

·3 min read

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The University of Florida on Friday reversed its position, saying three professors may testify as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new state law that critics say restricts voting rights.

The university last month had said that the three professors, Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, were prohibited from testifying in the lawsuit brought by civic groups since doing so would put the school in conflict with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which pushed the election law.

In a letter to the campus, university president Kent Fuchs said Friday that he was asking the office responsible for approving professors’ outside work to reverse recent rejections on requests to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which the state of Florida was a party.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The union for faculty members at the University of Florida on Friday urged donors to withhold contributions and scholars and artists to turn down invitations to campus until university administrators affirm the free speech rights of school employees.

The United Faculty of Florida made the demand in response to university leaders prohibiting professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin from being paid as expert witnesses in a lawsuit. The suit, filed by civic groups, challenges a new Florida elections law that critics say harms voting rights.

The union said donors should zip up their wallets and scholars and artists should decline invitations until the professors are allowed to provide their expert testimony, the university issues an apology and it affirms it won't interfere with any employee's free speech rights. The union also demanded that the university affirm its support for voting rights and declare that the school's mission is for the public good.

“It's an attack on all of us," said Paul Ortiz, a history professor who is president of the union chapter at the University of Florida.

Last month, university officials told the three professors that they couldn't testify because doing so would put the school in conflict with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which pushed the election law.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said in a letter to the campus community earlier this week that the school will immediately appoint a task force “to review the university’s conflict of interest policy and examine it for consistency and fidelity.”

Also this week, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges told news outlets the organization planned to investigate the university’s decision.

The University of Florida's president answers to its board of trustees, which has six members appointed by the governor and five appointed by the state university system’s board of governors. The board of governors, in turn, has 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Florida governor and confirmed by the state Senate. These offices have been in Republican hands for many years.

DeSantis’ office, in a statement earlier this week, denied being behind the decision to block the faculty members’ testimony.

The Associated Press

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