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Scholars blocked from testifying against Florida's voter-suppression law

Three University of Florida professors want to give expert testimony on Republicans' voter-suppression law. So why are they being blocked?

Florida officials took great pride in how well their system of elections performed in 2020. But as we've discussed, that didn't stop Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP state legislators from putting new hurdles between voters and their democracy anyway — in part because they could, in part to give themselves an added electoral advantage, and in part because the GOP believes it must enact policies supportive of the party's Trumpian conspiracy theories.

With this in mind, the governor in May signed voter-suppression measures into law, which took effect immediately and will be in place for the Sunshine State's busy 2022 election cycle.

Not surprisingly, Florida Republicans' new anti-voting policies are being challenged in the courts, and 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 The Miami Herald reported, however, the current circumstances are anything but normal.

In a decision that could have far-reaching free speech implications for faculty at universities and colleges across Florida, the University of Florida has refused to allow three political science professors to continue to serve as expert witnesses in a case that challenges a new state law that restricts voting access. Political Science Professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, in cases before the state, were told by emails earlier this month that their requests to serve as experts would now be rejected.

The professors' dean said that the scholars' testimony "may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida" and "create a conflict for the University of Florida."

It's an odd argument. It'd be one thing if a lawyer for the governor was prepared to give testimony about a law his employer/client had signed into law, but in this instance, we're talking about university professors who operate independently from DeSantis' office.

To see a "conflict" is to suggest the university's professors are somehow an extension of the DeSantis administration. They are not.

Indeed, one of the scholars testified — with the University of Florida's permission — in two voting rights cases against Florida's Republican-led government in 2018.

The New York Times added, "Leading experts on academic freedom said they knew of no similar restrictions on professors' speech and testimony and said the action was probably unconstitutional."

The professors are now represented by counsel, and it's likely that we haven't heard the end of this story. Among the questions in need of answers is how the university arrived at this decision, whether the school feared political retaliation, and whether anyone in state government leaned on university officials before the decision was made.

Update: The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this morning that the University of Florida’s accreditor plans to investigate the flagship the incident. The Washington Post's Greg Sargent added, "The Democratic members of Congress from Florida are set to come out sharply against the decision, I’m told, and depending on how things go, this could result in congressional hearings."