Denying Florida professors’ free speech is a step backward for democracy | Commentary – Orlando Sentinel
The unfortunate decision of the University of Florida to restrict the opportunity of its professors to testify as election experts because their testimony could be contrary to the governor and the majority of our state legislature is a step backward for Florida and the well-being of our democracy.
One of the many hallmarks of institutions of higher learning is the ability to accept differing viewpoints of its students and its faculty. In this case, the University of Florida has unfortunately weakened its stature. The academic freedom of professors is essential to free and open discourse. Discourse is the lifeblood of a vigorous democracy and is at the root of the ability to make informed decisions.
The League of Women Voters and all Floridians rely heavily on the benefits of academic freedom as we need to hear all sides of issues from professors who are subject matter experts. Shutting the mouths of professors associated with a state university shuts the ears of its citizens. Hindering the development of knowledge perceived as consistent with state interests cannot be accepted.
The notion of academic freedom promised to professors in Florida and throughout the nation, is grounded by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and it is a sacred trust.
In fact, this commitment to academic freedom is something that the University of Florida has exhibited in the past with great fervor. It was not too long ago that the university welcomed the avowed white supremacist, Richard Spencer, to their campus because a student group issued the invitation. Although the school disavowed the beliefs of this speaker, it stood with the premise that First Amendment rights to free speech should rule, and the invitation for the openly racist advocate was not revoked. He was allowed to speak and advocate for his beliefs in white supremacy.
The university’s decision in regard to Spencer took courage and an unwavering focus on the sanctity of the First Amendment. It showed that the university was willing to endure students protests, upset faculty, and questions from other institutions that had made a different decision to not have an avowed Klansman speak at their campuses. It showed that the university could endure discomfort because it was devoted to the idea that differing opinions need to compete in the marketplace of ideas without censure or the concept of free speech would be harmed and belittled.
So, we must ask, what has changed since then? How can the testimony of several professors on the harms caused by new legislation limiting established voting procedures be more toxic and more against the state’s interest than the race-baiting comments of a white supremacist? How can a university’s high regard for the First Amendment be so chastened that leadership is fearful that they will suffer consequences due to allowing these three experts to testify?
The recent “clarification” from University of Florida President Ken Fuchs that professors may testify on their own time and not get paid for their expertise is insulting to the judicial process where expert witnesses are routinely compensated for their time and expertise. It does not remedy the negative impact of the limitations on the professors who are being unfairly pressured to work for free or be silent.
University of Florida professors have testified time and time again as experts against the Legislature’s action in cases and while being compensated. In the past, the League of Women Voters of Florida have utilized numerous professors, including two of those involved in this matter, as experts in cases that have assisted in protecting the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Floridians. The League desires to protect its right use these professors and others as experts as needed.
The League of Women Voters of Florida stands with the citizens to protect the academic freedoms of all state professors under the U.S. Constitution, under well-established state and federal case law, and under the collective bargaining agreements that protect the rights of professors at state schools and under possible state whistleblower protections.
The League asks all Floridians to join us in our call upon the University of Florida to immediately rescind all of these limiting directives and allow professors to testify as experts for compensation. We also believe the University should issue a public apology to these brave public servants. When state actors censure and limit the free speech of their professors and infringe on their academic freedom, all free speech is threatened.
Cecile M. Scoon is the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida and an owner and managing principal of Peters & Scoon Attorneys at Law.