Three University of Florida professors said in a federal court filing on Friday that they had been barred from assisting plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn the state’s new law restricting voting rights, an extraordinary limit on speech that raises questions of academic freedom and First Amendment rights.
University officials told the three that because the school was a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state “is adverse to U.F.’s interests” and could not be permitted. In their filing, the professors sought to question Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, on whether he was involved in the decision.
Mr. DeSantis has resisted questioning, arguing that all of his communications about the law are protected from disclosure because discussions about legislation are privileged. In their filing on Friday, lawyers for the plaintiffs said the federal questions in the case — including whether the law discriminates against minority groups — override any state protections.
Spokespeople for Mr. DeSantis and the university could not be immediately reached for comment.
The university’s refusal to allow the professors to testify was a marked turnabout for the University of Florida. Like schools nationwide, the university has routinely allowed academic experts to offer expert testimony in lawsuits, even when they oppose the interests of the political party in power.
Leading experts on academic freedom said they knew of no similar restrictions on professors’ speech and testimony and said the action was probably unconstitutional.
One of the professors in the latest filing, Daniel A. Smith, testified with the University of Florida’s permission in two voting rights lawsuits against Florida’s Republican-led government in 2018. One suit forced the state to provide Spanish-language ballots for Hispanic voters. The other overturned a state-imposed ban on early-voting polling places on Florida university campuses.
But university officials reversed course after a coalition of advocacy and voting rights groups sued in May to block restrictions on voting enacted this year by the Republican-controlled State Legislature. Among other provisions, the new law sharply limits the use of ballot drop boxes, makes it harder to obtain absentee ballots and places new requirements on voter registration drives.
Among other claims, the plaintiffs argue that the law disproportionately limits the ability of Black and Hispanic voters to cast ballots.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs sought to hire three University of Florida political scientists as expert witnesses: Dr. Smith, the chair of the university’s political science department; Michael McDonald, a nationally recognized elections scholar; and Sharon Wright Austin, who studies African American political behavior.
In rejecting Dr. Smith’s request, the dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences, David E. Richardson, wrote that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida.” A university vice president overseeing conflicts of interest issued the other two rejections.
One lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, Kira Romero-Craft, said that reasoning “goes against the core of what the University of Florida should stand for in terms of academic freedom.”
“It seems reasonable for us to understand whether the executive office of the governor had any role in participating in that decision,” she said.