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The Florida Roundup

UF professors who were told not to testify, share their story, as school works to reverse decision

Image of University of Florida Century Tower
Kate Haskell / Wikimedia Commons
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University of Florida Century Tower

"If we were volunteering, then we are no longer experts," one professor said before the University of Florida changed its decision.

The University of Florida is backtracking, again, on its directive to three professors banning them from serving as paid expert witnesses in a lawsuit against Florida's voting law.

Mid-day on Friday, UF President Kent Fuchs emailed the university community that he had asked the school's Conflicts of Interest Office to "reverse decisions on recent requests by UF employees to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which the state of Florida is a party."

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That would allow professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin to testify in a case challenges the state's new voting law.

The three had been told they could not participate in the case because it went against the university's interests. On Monday, after the story gained attention, the school modified its prohibition. It said the professors could testify, but only if they were not paid or used university resources.

Friday's email from Fuchs signals a complete reversal is in the offing.

"I'd have to look more at that statement before I could give you a response to it," said McDonald, "unfortunately, because we're in a legal situation, not a public relations situation."

McDonald and fellow UF professor Sharon Wright Austin appeared on the Florida Roundup just as UF's student news organization, The Alligator, reported Fuchs' request.

By 1 p.m. Friday, McDonald tweeted that the university had notified him of its change.

This reversal would allow the professors to testify and get paid for their expert opinion regarding voting methods and behaviors.

Prior to learning about the university's change, McDonald noted the important difference compensation makes in expert testimony.

"If we were volunteering, then we are no longer experts." he said, "Witnesses are advocates. And so, as a legal matter, the compensation is actually tied to whether or not we are dispassionate experts who are evaluating the facts of the case versus advocates who were volunteering their time to work on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case."

The case the three have been connected to testify in seeks to overturn Florida's new voting law, signing by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year.

Austin said she had submitted "a factual report that talks about voting discrimination generally in the state of Florida. So it's not a case in which I've taken any particular side. I was just asked to do research and I did it."

Special Session

Florida lawmakers are scheduled to begin a special law-writing session in a little more than a week, but there are no publicly available proposed laws yet.

Gov. DeSantis called for the special session for lawmakers to consider a series of bills inspired by the pandemic — bills that would ban companies from requiring workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and strengthen parents' rights to make their own decisions for their children about vaccines and masks.

The one-week session comes on the heels of the Biden administration announcing a federal mandate for large companies with 100 workers or more to require vaccinations, or weekly testing by early next year. DeSantis was quick to announce that Florida would sue the federal government over the requirement.

“People are so sick of constantly being bossed around, restricted, mandated, and all of these different things. We’ve had enough of it and we want people to be able to make their own decisions," the governor said on Thursday.

Some Republican legislators have cast doubt on how far the Legislature may be willing to go in dealing with private company vaccine mandates.

"There's an enormous amount of dissension between the governor and the Republican leadership in the Legislature," said Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Lake County).

He blames legislative leaders for being under what he called "the sway" of big corporations.

Some large businesses in Florida are requiring their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 including Disney, AT&T and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which sued the state over its ban on vaccine passports. In addition to mandating its employees be vaccinated, Norwegian continues requiring its cruise passengers to have the jab before boarding its ships.

"These big woke companies are now dictating very private aspects of people's lives, not only telling them that they have no medical freedom, but they also have no medical privacy," Sabatini said.

"It's really not a mandate," said Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton. "It's not requiring you to get vaccinated. If you really have a reason — a medical reason — then you can get tested every week. But what's wrong with getting tested every week? It's supposed to be inconvenient because we want you to get the vaccine."

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.