House Democrats seek answers after Florida professors' testimony briefly blocked

A pair of House Democrats is requesting information about the University of Florida’s (UF) conflicts-of-interest policy after the school made headlines in recent weeks for prohibiting, then allowing, three professors to testify in a federal voting rights lawsuit against the state.

News broke last month that UF was barring three professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of civil rights groups against Florida over the state Senate’s voting rights bill, which limited the use of ballot drop boxes and established new identification requirements for mail-in voting, in addition to other restrictions.

The Gainesville school told the professors they were not permitted to testify as experts in the case on behalf of the plaintiffs as part of their “outside activities.” Emails sent to the professors revealed that the restriction was put in place because of conflicts of interest to the executive branch of the state.

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The university reversed course days later, allowing the trio of professors to testify, but that did not stop the three educators from filing a federal lawsuit requesting that the state stop enforcing “any policy or practice” that allows the school to limit their ability to testify in cases that do not coincide with the “interests” of the state of Florida.

In a letter to UF President Wesley Kent Fuchs, Democratic Reps. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinOath Keeper charges renew attention on Trump orbit Carville advises Democrats to 'quit being a whiny party' Biden makes final Fed board picks MORE (Md.) and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (Fla.) said the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties is probing “the extent to which your university’s actions have undermined the integrity of academic freedom and interfered with employees’ constitutional right to speak freely as private citizens on matters of great public concern.”

“In addition, we seek to understand the extent to which federally funded universities use conflicts-of-interest policies to censor employees who oppose the interests of the political party in power,” the lawmakers added.

They said they were writing with “deep concern” that the move was “in violation with the First Amendment and in contravention of long-established principles of academic freedom.”

“We are concerned that UF is censoring its faculty based on viewpoint, which would set a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of its own commitment to freedom of expression,” Raskin and Wasserman-Schultz added.

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The lawmakers requested a list of information related to the situation, including the names of people who were involved with crafting the conflicts-of-interest policy, information on professors who were denied the ability to take part in “outside activities,” and scores of relevant documents.

Reached by The Hill for comment, Hessy Fernandez, UF's director of issues management and crisis communications, said the school has received the letter and acknowledged the receipt to the committee.

“We are working to respond within the guidelines we received,” Fernandez said.