UF must let professors testify, free-speech advocate urges. ‘Get this controversy behind you.’

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As the University of Florida faces an accreditation investigation, a free speech advocate urged the university to let its professors testify freely in a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial new elections law.

Doing so would set a strong example for the country and preserve Florida’s “well-deserved reputation for being protective of free speech,” according to free speech advocate Robert P. George. The Princeton professor, who travels the country speaking on the importance of freedom of expression on university campuses, spoke on a panel about that very topic Wednesday at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

A mix of educators and trustees at state universities listened to George’s speech about the importance of presenting thoughts and ideas from all viewpoints, and from either side of the political spectrum.

Rahul Patel, who serves on UF’s Board of Trustees, spoke alongside George on the panel at FAU. He was called upon to answer for the university’s decision to block the professors from testifying. In a roundabout response that pulled from the university’s official statement on the matter, he said that the university could not allow the professors to provide paid testimony because of the university’s policies on conflicts of interest.

“We were not able to put our stamp of approval on professors coming to us taking a paid role in litigation and taking a position that is adverse to the University of Florida, the University of Florida being part of the state,” he said. “It would be like if you had a business, an employee coming to you saying I would like to get paid separately to testify in a lawsuit against the interests of the parent company that I work for. So that is the position that we took.”

The university is under increasing scrutiny for preventing three political science professors from providing paid testimony in the lawsuit challenging the state’s elections law. News that the university limited the participation of at least eight UF professors in court cases against the state of Florida since last year has drawn national attention. It also drew concern that the university is bowing to political pressure.

Professors were told by UF that the outside compensation was the issue and they could still testify pro bono. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, UF’s accreditor, plans to investigate the matter. Accreditation is needed for schools to be eligible for federal student aid.

The suit, filed by groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Black Voters Matter Fund and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, seeks to overturn the law passed earlier this year heavily pushed by DeSantis. It made major changes to drop boxes, mail-in ballots and voter registration methods. The groups contend those revisions will make it harder for many Floridians, especially minorities, to vote.

“The university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution,” UF said in a statement. The university said it “did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom” of the professors.

Princeton law professor Robert George and Rahul Patel, with the University of Florida Board of Trustees, sit on a panel at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. They were addressing the Board of Governors about freedom of expression on university campuses.

Princeton law professor Robert George and Rahul Patel, with the University of Florida Board of Trustees, sit on a panel at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. They were addressing the Board of Governors about freedom of expression on university campuses. (Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The university would have no issue with the professors running an op-ed piece in newspapers, or talking about their opinion on TV, as long as it was clear they were not being paid, Patel said, adding that UF President Kent Fuchs said the university would revisit the policy.

Asked for his thoughts on the matter, George urged the university to allow its professors to speak freely.

“Well, I’m a strong free speech advocate and so I very much welcome President Fuchs’ statement,” he said, adding that he applauded it on social media.

“The statement included a strong reaffirmation of free speech and its importance on a college campus,” he said. “It does seem to me that the university would do very well … if it were to grant the requests of the professors to testify as experts within their fields.”

Patel countered: “To be clear, the professors were always free to express their opinions to the extent they wanted to get an op-ed in the newspaper. To the extent they wanted to get on TV and talk about it,” he said. “They were always free to do that. The distinction here was that they were paid to testify litigation.”

George echoed what he previously wrote on social media, arguing that the distinction between paid or unpaid testimony wasn’t enough of a reason to limit the professors’ free speech.

“I urge the university to get this controversy behind it as quickly as possible by simply interpreting the conflicts not by distinction between paid and unpaid speech and would give broad permission to testify as to what you are in fact experts on,” he said. “I think that to me it’s very clear that the right policy is one that permits the expert testimony. I urge the University of Florida to do that. It would set an example for the country — get this controversy behind you. And Florida’s well-deserved reputation for being protective of free speech.”

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