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Democrats in Congress call on University of Florida to lift gag on professors

University President Kent Fuchs faces criticism after professors' request to testify in lawsuit challenging new state voting rights law denied
Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Kent Fuchs
Posted at 10:15 PM, Nov 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-02 22:15:32-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida's Democratic congressional delegation sent a letter to University of Florida President Kent Fuchs on Tuesday condemning the school's attempt to block three professors from testifying in a lawsuit challenging the state's new voting rights law.

Political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Dan Smith were prohibited by the university from testifying because "UF is a state actor" and faculty participating in "litigation against the state is adverse to UF's interests."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a University of Florida alumna, co-authored the letter to Fuchs.

"As a delegation, there are few values we want to foster and protect more in our public university system than the freedom to speak out against laws that infringe on our fundamental rights as citizens," the letter read. "We urge you to reconsider this 'prior restraint' on speech that violates the First Amendment as well as the deeply rooted principles of academic freedom that we know you and the University of Florida community hold so dear."

The university released a statement Saturday saying that it "did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom" of its professors.

"Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university's interests a state of Florida institution," the statement said.

In a message to the university community, Fuchs and provost Joe Glover clarified Monday that, "if the professors wish to testify pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they are free to do so."

But Wasserman Schultz and the nine other Florida Democrats in Congress reminded Fuchs that the First Amendment "safeguards expression from regulation by public institutions, inside and outside the classroom."

Debbie Wasserman Schultz wears Joe Biden face mask and holds iPhone with Florida Gators protective case, October 2020
Wearing a "Ridin With Biden President 2020" face mask, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., looks at her iPhone with a Florida Gators protective case as Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Miramar Regional Park, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in Miramar, Fla.

"On matters of public concern, state university professors should not be punished or prohibited from speaking if they do not disrupt the educational environment or proper functioning of the university," the letter read. "In this instance, it is hard to envision a matter of greater public concern than whether Florida's citizens can exercise their right to vote."

The letter goes on to request that Fuchs "simply reverse" the decision "and allow these professors to participate with compensation in this voting rights lawsuit."

Taking it one step further, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried said Tuesday on Twitter that she's calling on fellow University of Florida graduates "to withhold donations until (Fuchs) does what's right."

Her tweet included a link to an open letter seeking signatures of those "pledging to hold the university administration accountable and refraining from donating" to the school until the policy is reversed.