Judge won’t dismiss faculty case against UF

University of Florida brick sign
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A federal judge on Monday denied UF’s request to dismiss a First Amendment case involving six faculty members.

Three political science professors originally filed the lawsuit, which two law professors and a professor of pediatrics later joined. It challenges the university’s conflict of interest of policy as a violation of the First Amendment because it allowed UF to deny employees’ requests to speak in cases involving the state of Florida.

The pediatrics professor and the three political science professors were prevented from participating as experts in legal cases against the state. The two law professors were given permission to sign a friend of the court brief in a case against the state, but were prevented from identifying themselves as UF faculty members.

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The professors’ lawsuit claims the conflict of interest policy allows UF to discriminate based on viewpoint and to place prior restraints on free speech.

After a national controversy broke out, UF reversed its decision on the three political science professors and changed its policy on expert testimony. The university amended the policy to have a “strong presumption” to approve faculty testimony requests and also added an appeals process for professors whose requests are turned down.

In its motion to dismiss the case, UF cited the reversal of its original decision and the revised conflict of interest policy.

“UF approved the professors’ outside activity requests before they filed this lawsuit,” according to the motion to dismiss. “They simply refuse to take yes for an answer.”

But U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, of the Northern District of Florida, denied UF’s motion to dismiss, writing that the changed policy could still be challenged and the potential threat to free speech wasn’t over.

In ruling against the university’s motion, Walker specifically identified comments by Mori Hosseini, the chairman of UF’s Board of Trustees, as indicating there’s a “credible threat” that the university would enforce the conflict of interest policy being challenged by the lawsuit.

Walker pointed to comments that Hosseini made at a December meeting in which Hosseini criticized university professors, saying some had “taken advantage of their positions” and “improperly advocate[d] their personal political viewpoints to the exclusion of others.”

At the meeting, Hosseini had gone on to say: “This will not stand. It must stop. And it will stop. If you allow something to happen, that means you condone it. Enough. Let me tell you, our legislators, are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither is this board.”

The judge found Hosseini’s comments undercut UF’s argument that the issue was settled and that faculty members shouldn’t be concerned about how the university made decisions about conflicts of interests.

“[P]ublic statements by the Chairman of the University’s Board of Governors leave this Court with little doubt that the University of Florida intends to enforce its conflict-of-interest policy in the manner Plaintiffs fear,” Walker wrote in his order.

Separate from the lawsuit, the university also is facing an investigation by its primary accrediting body in the spring. A special committee will look into whether UF is adhering to accrediting guidelines that require protecting the academic freedom of its faculty members.

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