ORLANDO, Fla. – A federal judge sharply criticized an attorney for the University of Florida on Friday during a hearing on whether six faculty members’ free speech rights were infringed upon after the lawyer accused some of the professors of having no standing to make their cases because they had violated school policy.
Chief Judge Mark Walker in Tallahassee called an effort by the attorney for the University of Florida to introduce evidence about three of the six professors as “squirrely" when both sides had agreed there would be no need to take depositions or collect evidence. Furthermore, the judge said, there was nothing “new" about what attorney H. Christopher Bartolomucci wanted to present since it was already part of the public record.
“It strains credulity for you to suggest that these are newly discovered facts,” Walker said. “I find this 11th hour epiphany on your part to be questionable."
Six professors have sued the University of Florida, claiming it infringed upon their First Amendment rights by requiring them to get approval before serving as expert witnesses in outside cases. They claimed their requests were rejected by the university because they conflicted with the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and are asking for a preliminary injunction to block the university's policy.
The judge said he would try to make a decision within the next 10 days.
Before being dressed down by the judge during Friday's hearing, Bartolomucci said three of the professors, Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith were working as experts in outside cases before they had submitted requests for approval. The attorney for the University of Florida described their actions as “misconduct" and “flagrantly ignoring the process."
“The policy didn't chill them," Bartolomucci said during a hearing by telephone. “They lack standing. They didn't honor the process."
Last fall, the university prohibited the three professors from testifying as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new Florida election law that critics say restricts voting rights.
Facing an outpouring of criticism, UF President Kent Fuchs asked the office responsible for approving professors’ outside work to greenlight their request. Fuchs and other university administrators appointed a task force which affirmed the school's commitment to free speech and academic freedom, and said there would be a presumption of approval when faculty requested to serve as expert witnesses.
The university has argued that since the policy was changed, and the professors have failed to show they were harmed, there is no need for an injunction.
But an attorney for the professors, David O'Neill, told the judge Friday that the case wasn't about what had happened in the past but what will happen in the future.
School administrators “have come and attacked faculty members who have been with this school for decades," O'Neill said.
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP