University of Florida can’t stop faculty in cases conflicting with state, judge rules

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker grants preliminary injunction

File photo

ORLANDO, Fla. – In a decision that made a withering comparison to Communist China, a federal judge on Friday blocked the University of Florida from enforcing a policy that restricted faculty members from providing expert testimony in cases that conflict with positions taken by the state of Florida.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker granted a preliminary injunction on a conflict-of-interest claim brought by six faculty members, but he left in place for the time being a school policy that requires faculty members to get permission when signing legal briefs in court cases. The judge said he needed to hear more arguments or see further evidence before making a decision on this point.

Walker said he was persuaded that faculty members were exercising self-censorship under the university's policy, making a comparison to the children's fable, “The Emperor's New Clothes," in which officials and subjects in a kingdom are too afraid to tell an emperor the naked truth.

The judge said he was granting part of the preliminary injunction because “the First Amendment protects those who wish to speak truthfully and critically of that which others pretend not to see."

The six professors had 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 were asking for a preliminary injunction to block the university’s policy.

Last fall, the university prohibited 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 that 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 had argued in court papers that since the policy was changed, and the professors had failed to show they were harmed, there is no need for an injunction.

University spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said in an email that the school was reviewing the order and would determine its next steps.

In his decision, Walker cited as an example what had happened over the past decade to the University of Hong Kong. The judge said a decline in academic freedom there came from university administrators as much as from Beijing.

“If those in UF's administration find this comparison upsetting, the solution is simple," the judge wrote in a footnote. “Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong."


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