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University of Florida allows professors to testify in a voting rights case after all

Kent Fuchs, the president of the University of Florida, delivers comments during a ceremony in Gainesville, Fla., on Sept. 15.
Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Kent Fuchs, the president of the University of Florida, delivers comments during a ceremony in Gainesville, Fla., on Sept. 15.

The University of Florida is reversing its decision to bar three professors from serving as expert witnesses in a voting rights case against the state.

The university's earlier decision, which was revealed last week through documents filed in federal court, was widely criticized as an infringement of the professors' First Amendment rights.

The case was particularly under scrutiny because the lawsuit targeted legislation, supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis, that inhibited access to the ballot — and the school has strong ties to the governor.

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said in a letter released Friday that he had asked the university's conflict of interest office to reverse the decision and "approve the requests regardless of personal compensation, assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources."

The university announced earlier this week that it was establishing a task force made up of school professors and officials that will review the process of making requests to the conflict of interest office.

"The task force will make a recommendation to me on how UF should respond when employees request approval to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which their employer, the state of Florida, is a party," Fuchs wrote.

After the school's original decision was reported, the university's accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, said it was investigating the school. The story was originally reported by The Chronicle of Higher Educationand confirmed to NPR.

UF professors Daniel Smith, Sharon Austin and Michael McDonald were originally denied the opportunity to testify; they are all experts on voting rights and elections. Their lawyers say that since the university's original decision to bar them from testifying is still a violation of their First Amendment rights, the professors are still considering their legal options.

"The fact remains that the University curtailed their First Amendment rights and academic freedoms, and as long as the University's policy remains, those rights and freedoms are at risk," David A. O'Neil and Paul Donnelly, lawyers for the professors, said in a statement.

In a statement, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., thanked Fuchs for not "caving to the political pressures that Gov. Ron DeSantis regularly inflicts on Florida's education system."

The chair of the board of trustees at the University of Florida, Mori Hosseini, is a close adviser to DeSantis and a major GOP donor.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.