- Since union members spoke up, the university has changed course, saying the three political scientists can testify in favor of voters' rights after all. But the union isn't satisfied.
- Academic freedom is critical to a functioning university, where students and faculty can freely debate ideas and pursue the truth. By silencing faculty, the university is choosing to play politics instead.
- Since the news hit, a U.S. House of Representatives committee has announced its intention to investigate UF for possible free-speech violations.
Hours after a United Faculty of Florida (UFF) press conference earlier this month that detailed the University of Florida (UF)’s recent attacks on academic freedom and free speech, university administrators reversed course.
Three union members, political science professors who had been prohibited by the university from testifying in a case challenging Florida’s new voter-restriction laws, could testify after all, the university president said. His announcement marked a clear victory for the three professors, their union, and the overarching First Amendment rights of faculty and students to free speech.
But it was not the end of the battle.
UF’s decision to bar the three nationally known experts from testifying wasn’t the only demonstration of its cowardice in defending academic freedom and free speech. It was just the most recent example, union leaders said. For several years, faculty and students at campuses across Florida, not just at UF, have seen a growing trend among administrators to do whatever they can to appease the state’s governor and other political powers, even if it means sacrificing the rights of faculty, staff and students to pursue research, and speak freely in their classrooms and elsewhere.
“This incident with our members is part of a broader pattern to control and even eliminate certain types of speech on Florida higher-ed campuses and to muzzle the truth,” said UFF President Andrew Gothard, an English instructor at Florida Atlantic University.
For this reason, the union—with the support of many UF students—is pursuing a broad list of demands on academic freedom that would constitute a clear, unambiguous commitment by UF to academic freedom. This week, in support of the union, a U.S. House committee told the UF president that it would be investigating possible First Amendment violations of the university against professors. The university depends on federal funds to operate.
Politics on Campus
Together, academic freedom and free speech mean that faculty, staff and students can pursue their curiosity and interests—free from reprisal—in university labs and classrooms, and then use their ideas and discoveries to advance the public good. This is the basic fulfillment of a university’s mission, and it has led for centuries to the development of public policies, medical innovations, and more.
But at the University of Florida, multiple faculty members say they have been barred by UF from speaking freely about their expertise, in ways that would serve the public interest but undermine the political goals of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, a likely candidate for the White House in 2024, has been making a name for himself through opposition to COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates, attacks on teaching of the existence of racism in public schools, and by Florida’s passage of the nation’s most restrictive voting law. Among other things, this new voting-restriction law makes it illegal to give water to people waiting in line to vote—a common occurrence in Black communities where voting places are limited—and restricts voting by mail, a practice common among students, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
While the three UF political scientists—Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith—who would have testified against the voting law were forbidden to speak, a Florida International University professor hired by the Republican National Committee to testify in favor of the law was okayed.
Also barred from testifying: a pediatrics professor in UF’s medical school who was asked to testify last summer about DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates in schools. The professor said he would have spoken about how face masks work, and why children need protection from the COVID-19 virus.
“Why has the University of Florida become Gov. DeSantis’ press office?” asked a Tampa Bay Times editorial last month. “The University of Florida’s refusal to stand up for academic freedom is absolutely shameful. At least five more cases emerged this week where UF blocked or restricted its own professors from engaging in disputes that involve the state and Gov. Ron DeSantis… the university cheapened its name and undermined its role in education and Florida’ democracy by contributing to this climate of political fear.”
The chair of the board of trustees at the University of Florida is a close advisor to DeSantis and a major GOP donor. Additionally, 14 of the 17 members of the university system’s Board of Governors were appointed by DeSantis.
“Where does this stop?” asked Brian Cahill, a lecturer in UF’s psychology department and an expert on eyewitness memory who is often asked to testify in court. “What if I’m hired by a person who has been wrongfully accused of murder and the police used inappropriate methods to gather the identification. My testimony would certainly be against the state’s interests. Am I going to be denied against testifying?”
You Have No Rights to My Thoughts
A linchpin of DeSantis’ efforts to silence Florida faculty and students who might disagree with his politics is a new law, passed last year, requiring state colleges and universities to survey faculty and students on their political “viewpoints” and share those findings with legislators who could use them to determine each campus’ funding.
The goal, said DeSantis, is to prevent Florida’s universities from becoming “hotbeds for stale ideology,” he said. “That’s not worth tax dollars and that’s not something that we’re going to be supporting moving forward.”
But the reality is that it’s a “viewpoints discrimination law,” says Gothard. “It’s a weapon designed to track ideas and target speech that the political party in power does not like… This is not democracy. This is not American. And it is not the Constitutional right to freedom of speech and association that Americans have fought and died to defend.”
In response, UFF has joined a federal lawsuit to strike down the law on constitutional grounds, and also worked with supportive legislators to file two bills—one in the state Senate and the other in the House—to repeal the law in 2022.
Their efforts, says Gothard, “seek to return campuses to places where all students, staff and faculty can think, feel, believe and speak without fear of retribution by the governor’s office and certain legislators.”
What's at Stake
UFF has a history of working to protect academic freedom, says Paul Ortiz, president of UFF-UF, the UF chapter of United Faculty of Florida. Indeed, the union was founded in 1968 by faculty “to defend hard-working scholars,” who had been targeted by university administrators for being gay or Catholic, or for openly supporting racial integration and the Civil Rights Movement and criticizing the Confederacy, says Ortiz.
The union contract, negotiated by UFF-UF and legally binding to all parties, states: “a faculty member should be free to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of research and creative expression… and to speak, write and act in an atmosphere of freedom.”
And yet, here union members are, Ortiz noted—still defending academic freedom from attack. In this latest battle, UFF-UF has issued four demands of university officials:
- Allow professors to provide paid expert testimony on topics relating to their expertise, such as voting rights—and formally apologize to those that were denied that right.
- Stop interfering with the rights of UF employees to exercise their academic freedom, free speech rights, and the right to lend their expertise for the public good.
- Support voting rights and oppose the oppression of voting rights in the state of Florida.
- Declare that the university’s mission to serve the public good is independent of the political interests of state officeholders.
Until the union’s demands are met, UFF-UF is calling on alumni and other donors to withhold contributions. “I’ve had many parents, many administrators, many past UFF leaders call and tell me, ‘We have to save the University of Florida,’” says Ortiz. “This is really a crisis moment. Academic freedom is under assault, not just here but nationally, and we’ve got to do something to turn the tide.”
The university’s response to date—the president created a task force to investigate the issue—is far from sufficient, union members said. Not with the stakes so high. “Public universities, funded by public dollars, exist to protect the public good,” says Gothard. “And UFF will continue to do all that we can do to ensure that no one—no individual, group or party—hinders that good and thereby harms the public.”