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Controversy grows over Florida silencing professors at odds with DeSantis

The list of professors blocked from testifying in cases related to Gov. Ron DeSantis' policies keeps growing.

After Florida Republicans created wildly unnecessary new voting restrictions, legal fights soon followed. Under normal circumstances, we'd expect to see some of the state's leading scholars offering expert testimony, explaining in detail the effects of the new state statutes.

As we were reminded last week, Florida's circumstances aren't normal at all: The University of Florida blocked three political scientists from testifying. The school said there was a "conflict": The university is a public institution and part of the state government. Since the lawsuit is challenging a state law signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the professors, according to their employer, had to remain neutral.

In effect, the school concluded that University of Florida professors are somehow an extension of the DeSantis administration.

This week, the burgeoning controversy got a little worse. The New York Times reported:

A decision by the University of Florida to bar three professors from testifying in a lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis has ballooned into a political and public relations firestorm, one that could grow as other professors consider whether to step forward with stories of university pressure. Since Friday, when the university's decision was disclosed in a federal court filing, five more professors have offered accounts of being barred from testifying or ordered to omit mention of their university positions in court statements.

Among those affected is pediatrician Jeffrey Goldhagen. The governor's policy against mask protections in schools is also facing a legal fight, and Goldhagen was prepared to offer expert testimony. The University of Florida wouldn't allow this either.

"It's creating an environment which is putting intolerable pressure on universities and other institutions as well to comply with the political policies of this administration, for sure," the physician told the Times. "I don't think there's any questions about that."

And that gets to what makes this story so interesting: Is Florida's flagship university, which used to have very different policies in this area, trying to comply with DeSantis' political agenda? Has anyone pressured the university to do so?

The Washington Post's Greg Sargent added: "One rather important thing that has changed since the university allowed such testimony is that DeSantis is now governor. DeSantis has major allies on the university's board of trustees, one of whom is both a major GOP donor and top DeSantis adviser. What's unclear is whether they are behind this decision."

Let's also not forget that as recently as June, the Republican governor — a former far-right member of Congress — launched an initiative he said was intended to prevent the "indoctrination" of students at Florida universities. The plan included mandatory surveys of university students, faculty, and staff about their political beliefs.

According to a report in the Tampa Bay Times, DeSantis and the bill's legislative sponsor said state colleges and universities could face budget cuts depending on the results.

In other words, we're already dealing with a gubernatorial administration that has no use for academic freedom. The latest revelations make matters considerably worse.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the University of Florida's accreditor plans to investigate the questions surrounding professors who've been blocked from testifying. Democratic lawmakers from the Sunshine State have also taken an interest.

Update: DeSantis' office has extended tacit support for the university's decision, though the governor's team has also denied any involvement in what's transpired.