Mentioning communist China, federal judge sides with UF professors in First Amendment suit

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Comparing the grievance to a human rights violation in communist China, a federal judge ordered the University of Florida on Friday to stop restricting how its faculty provides expert witness testimony in cases that challenge the state’s positions in “hot-button political issues.”

In the 74-page injunction, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker forbade UF until further notice from enacting its conflict-of-interest policy, which it deemed unconstitutional.

The university cited that policy as the reason it initially barred three political science professors, Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith, from testifying last fall against the state in a case regarding a new law related to voting access. Critics say the statute — similar to those in other Republican-dominated states after the November election — is aimed at making voting more difficult.

After public outcry, UF allowed them to serve as paid expert witnesses as long as it was on their own time and they did not use UF resources.

The three UF professors sued the university in early November. A pediatrics professor, Jeffrey Goldhagen, and two law professors, Teresa Jean Reid and Kenneth Nunn, later joined the suit, arguing the university also violated their rights when it prevented them from filing amicus briefs in suits against the state.

However, Walker denied a similar request involving “friend of the court” briefs.

UF spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said Friday afternoon the university is evaluating how to proceed. “We are reviewing the order and will determine our next steps,” she wrote in an email.

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Walker, the chief judge of the northern district of Florida, compared UF’s action to the University of Hong Kong’s. The Asian university removed in December an “imposing, eight-meter-tall statue” named Pillar of Shame that commemorated the Tiananmen Square Massacre — a historic military crackdown of demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The monument, which read “The old cannot kill the young forever,” has existed for more than 20 years since Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt created it.

“In many ways, the Pillar’s demise was emblematic of the demise of academic freedom in Hong Kong,” he wrote. “Some might say, ‘that’s China, it could never happen here.’ But Plaintiffs contend it already has.”

“Our society would be immeasurably poorer without Plaintiffs’ speech,” he added further down.

The university’s board of trustees, President Kent Fuchs, Provost Joe Glover, Law Dean Laura Rosenbury and any of their officers, agents, attorneys and others who receive a copy of the injunction must comply.

David A. O’Neil, the professors’ lawyer, said Friday’s ruling highlights the importance of free speech and academic freedom to the country’s democracy.

“The decision sends a clear message to public universities across the country — and to politicians who would try to interfere with them — that they too must honor the constitutional principles that make the college campus a vital engine of a free society,” he said in an emailed statement.

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