Court Battles

Florida professors sue over prohibition on testimony in voting rights case

Three University of Florida professors who were barred from testifying in a voting rights lawsuit against the state have sued the university over its conflict-of-interest policy. 

The professors — Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith — filed a federal lawsuit seeking to bar the school from enforcing “any policy or practice” that allows U of F to limit their ability to testify in cases that are not aligned with the “interests” of the state of Florida.

The lawsuit comes hours after the university said it would allow the professors to testify after reports emerged that they were not allowed to do so.

David O’Neil and Paul Donnelly, the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement that despite the reversal the school has “made no commitment to abandon its policy” barring faculty from serving as expert witnesses in cases that involve the state. 

“It is time for this matter to be rightfully adjudicated, not by press release, but in a court of law,” the attorneys adeed.

The university has been facing backlash over the past several weeks after reports emerged that it denied requests from the professors to serve as paid experts in the lawsuit over Senate Bill 90, the state’s elections overhaul bill.

A coalition of civil rights groups sued the state earlier this year over the law, which among other restrictions created new ID requirements for mail-in voting and restricted the use of ballot dropboxes.

In the complaint, the professors say they were asked to testify on topics such as voting discrimination against minorities and the impact of voting by mail on minority groups.

The professors have testified in similar suits. Specifically, McDonald and Smith have served as witnesses in lawsuits opposing voting regulations across the country, some of which challenged laws in the state of Florida, the suit noted.

The plaintiffs claim that the school’s policy violates the First Amendment rights by requiring the administration’s permission to speak, and by restricting the professors’ testimony based on their viewpoint. The complaint also pointed out that the state has allowed professor testimony that aligned with its views.   

“The University refused to approve each of Plaintiffs’ applications, offering a series of shifting and  inconsistent explanations that laid bare the University’s real goal: to prevent Plaintiffs  from testifying in support of a challenge to the State’s policies,” the complaint states.

The University told The Hill that it does not comment on pending litigation. 

Updated at 7:19 p.m.


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