WASHINGTON — A federal judge handed a crucial free speech victory to six University of Florida professors on Friday, ordering the university to stop enforcing a policy that had barred them from testifying as experts in lawsuits against the state.
The scathing ruling, handed down by Judge Mark E. Walker of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, accused the university of trying to silence professors for fear their testimony would anger state officials. and legislators who control school funding. Judge Walker compared it to the decision last month by the University of Hong Kong to remove a 25ft sculpture marking the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square by the Chinese military, apparently out of fear to irritate the authoritarian Chinese government.
While the comparison has distressed university officials, he wrote, “the solution is simple. Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong.
A university spokeswoman, Hessy Fernandez, said school officials would review the order before deciding whether to appeal.
Technically, the 74-page order limits the university only temporarily, until there is a ruling in the professors’ lawsuit challenging the policy. But the judge, who was appointed in 2012 by President Barack Obama, left little doubt that his view of the school’s conduct was unlikely to change, saying evidence on the “side of the defendants of scale are empty; the excesses of the plaintiffs.
On its face, Judge Walker said, the school’s policy violated the First Amendment by silencing teachers who criticized the state but letting others speak freely, a violation known as point of view discrimination. view.
The order marked a turning point in a dispute that has tarnished the reputation of one of the nation’s leading public universities and sparked an investigation by the body that accredits it. It also fueled criticism from Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, who denied pressuring the school to crack down on faculty conduct that questions his administration’s policies.
And he uncovered a wealth of evidence that, despite the adamant refusal of university officials to have felt political pressure, faculty members did. In a report released last fall, the Faculty Senate complained of “palpable reluctance and even fear”, alleging that some school employees had been warned “not to criticize the governor of Florida or UF’s policies related to Covid-19 in interactions with the media”, and that obstacles had been raised to the publication of data on the pandemic.
Among many other accusations, the report also says some professors have been told not to use the words “critical” and “race” in the same sentence, a reference to the right-wing fever over critical race theory.
A lawyer for the teachers, David O’Neil, called the decision a “resounding victory”.
“I think the judge recognized what the university is doing for what it is: an effort to bring a state university under the control of the ruling party in the state government,” he said. -he declares. “If the First Amendment means anything, it means the government can’t choose what speech is allowed based on their point of view.”
Three political science professors filed a lawsuit in October after university officials denied their requests to act as expert witnesses for plaintiffs challenging the state’s restrictive new election law. They were later joined by a professor of pediatrics who had been barred from testifying in a lawsuit challenging Mr. DeSantis’ executive order withholding funds from schools that enforced mask mandates.
Two law professors also joined the lawsuit, saying they weren’t allowed to sign a brief in a lawsuit against the state unless they hid their affiliation with the school. .
Each was told the actions violated a new conflict-of-interest policy that limited school employees’ involvement in matters “contrary to the interests of UF” — in those cases, opposing the government of the state of which the university is a part – even if they were acting as individuals, on their spare time.
Judge Walker called this reasoning “shocking”.
“And what are UF’s interests?” he wrote. “Why should defendants regulate the speech of plaintiffs? How does the plaintiffs’ speech impede the effective delivery of government services, undermine discipline, harmony in the workplace or the trust of employers?
“Despite being given not one, not two, but four opportunities to articulate in writing or during oral argument how Plaintiffs’ speech disrupts the UF’s mission, Defendants cannot or will not don’t want to say it.”
In court, university lawyers argued that the professors’ challenge was moot because the university lifted bans on their court testimony in November and rewrote the dispute policy to make such future bans more difficult. .
But the judge rejected that, noting that the school had not agreed to stop censoring the testimony of faculty members and that the president of the school’s board of trustees, Morteza Hosseini, had indicated that few things had changed. In remarks to the board of trustees last month, Hosseini said faculty members doing outside work could neglect their duties and misuse university funds, and take advantage of their positions “to improperly defend personal political views to the exclusion of others”.
“It has to stop, and it will stop,” he said. “Let me tell you, our legislators are not going to accept the waste of state money and resources, and neither is this advice.”