Why did Florida ban state professors from challenging Ron DeSantis’s voting law?

By Greg Sargent, Washington Post Columnist, Nov 1, 2021.

Last spring, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida took the reprehensible step of signing the state’s new voter suppression law on Fox News. In so doing, the Republican acted out an ugly truism: Restricting voting as governor in a high-profile way is bound to have great appeal to the national GOP base, possibly boosting future presidential aspirations.

Now this story has taken another ugly turn: The University of Florida has barred three professors from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against the voter suppression measure.

This story is about to get worse for the university: The Democratic members of Congress from Florida are set to come out sharply against the decision, I’m told, and depending on how things go, this could result in congressional hearings.

This will ratchet up the stakes in this battle and draw more national scrutiny to a move that experts have denounced as a startling and inexplicable attack on academic freedom.

This blowup began when the New York Times reported that the university had informed the professors that they could not participate in a lawsuit against the law. The rationale was that assisting a lawsuit against the state is “adverse to U.F.’s interests.”

The lawsuit argues that the voting law’s provisions, such as the ones restricting drop boxes and making it harder to get absentee ballots in various ways, will impose disproportionate burdens on nonwhite voters. The professors — Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin — were hired by the plaintiffs to testify to this and other matters.

The DeSantis angle here is potentially very troubling. DeSantis, it turns out, has top allies at the university, such as Morteza Hosseini, who is both head of the university’s board of trustees and a big GOP donor and close DeSantis adviser.

It’s not clear whether those allies — or DeSantis himself — are behind this decision. But the lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking to question DeSantis about his potential involvement as part of their litigation, and the Times reports that DeSantis has “resisted questioning.”

The university’s rationale is strange and opaque. It’s not immediately clear why testifying in this lawsuit would be contrary to the university’s “interests.”

When I asked a university spokesman to clarify, he emailed me this:

“To your question, the university views the professors’ request as a request to be paid to testify against the state, and the university, as a public institution, is part of the state — therefore, that would be adverse to the university’s interests. However, to be clear, if the professors wish to do so pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they would be free to do so.”

But this raises more questions than it answers. First, one of the professors — Smith — has repeatedly testified in previous voting rights cases against the state of Florida. And Smith tells me these were approved by the university and that he was paid for his work on them.

“Quite the contrary, UF has celebrated my involvement in these high-profile cases, as it brings national recognition to the university,” Smith told me. So, it’s not clear why getting paid is problematic this time.

What’s more, a lawyer for the three professors told me that at no point did the university indicate to them that working on the lawsuit pro bono was an option. This raises more questions about the integrity of the process here.

Smith’s point about the university celebrating previous cases raises still more questions. In what sense would the university’s role as part of the state mean the professors’ participation in the lawsuit is contrary to their interests? And even if you accept that absurd notion, why would doing it pro bono somehow mitigate that?

These and other questions are why Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) tells me she is circulating a letter among the Florida congressional delegation condemning the decision and asking for an accounting of how it was arrived at.

“We’ll be asking a series of questions, and we expect answers,” Wasserman Schultz tells me, adding that it’s likely that all 10 Democrats will sign it. Republicans will be invited to sign as well, but it seems inevitable that they will decline.

Wasserman Schultz noted that such activity by professors was routinely approved in the past, adding that the only difference now is “who is governor.” She noted that she had a private conversation with university president Kent Fuchs, in which she was “quite critical,” and found his answers “unsatisfactory.”

Wasserman Schultz, who attended the university herself, pointed out that it’s far more likely that it’s damaging its own interests with this stance. “This is activity that enhances the reputation of the university,” she told me, in that it showcases its “nationally renowned professors using their expertise.”

The big unknown here is how this is supposed to be harming the university’s interests. Regardless, it will soon be pressed to account for this: Wasserman Schultz says she and Democrats will pursue “every possible way to ensure that these professors can participate in this case.”

When I asked whether this might include congressional hearings, she said: “When I say ‘every,’ it includes every.

With conservatives regularly railing against allegedly rampant liberal censoriousness on college campuses, how Republicans and their media allies approach this should prove instructive. Fox News will be all over this, right?

In response to the above situation, Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz issued the following statement:
“It is clear that DeSantis’ dark, authoritarian hand is behind this worrying decision on the part of the University of Florida. With every day that passes, the rights of Floridians are being further  eroded by a cynical Governor with a clear dictatorial bent who will stop at nothing to shield himself and his cronies from scrutiny or accountability.
“This kind of partisan move violates not just the First Amendment rights of professors, it robs our courts of the ability to consistently count on the testimony of some of Florida’s finest experts on matters of great importance to our state. This is a precedent that simply cannot stand.
“I call on the University of Florida to side with our nation’s democratic ideals, reverse its position on these requests and allow these professors to testify freely.  Our colleges and universities should not be a party to the silencing of their faculties in this manner, and even less so when it pertains to testimony in a case that could impact voting access for our state’s citizens.”

Image Credits: Florida Channel screenshot

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