In yet another example of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ state of Florida plunge into fascism, now three University of Florida (UF) professors are being muzzled as they attempt to testify against a new state law that restricts people from the right to vote—a stunning hit blow free speech and First Amendment rights. 

In a case challenging Senate Bill 90, political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin were notified via email that their request to serve as experts was denied. 

According to the ACLU, Senate Bill 90 forces voters to submit vote-by-mail requests more often than is currently required, cancels voters’ current vote-by-mail ballots retroactively, makes it a crime for a voter to ask a trusted friend or caregiver to pick up or drop off vote-by-mail ballots, and eliminates secure vote-by-mail drop boxes.

Smith is the chair of UF’s political science department; McDonald is a national expert on elections and Austin studies African American political behavior, per reporting from the Miami Herald

“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,’’ wrote David Richardson, dean of UF’s college of arts and sciences in response to Smith’s request. McDonald and Austin received similar emails. 

Barring the professors from testifying may be connected to an op-ed written by Smith and McDonald in the Tampa Bay Times, implicating the GOP-led state and its Republican lawmakers of using a “legal umbrella” to “violate the Fair Districts clause” in Florida’s Constitution and illegally restrict the state with outside contracts to intentionally hide gerrymandering information from the public. 

An attorney for the professors calls the decision by UF “retaliatory” and says the move “strikes at the very heart of academic freedom.” In a federal filing against the school, attorneys have requested to speak with DeSantis on his involvement. 

A spokesperson for UF, Hessy Fernandez, defended the school’s decision, saying that UF “has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so.”

“The university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom” of the professors, Fernandez said. “Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”

According to The New York Times, in the latest filing, Smith testified with UF’s permission in two voting rights lawsuits against Florida’s GOP-led government in 2018. One suit forced the state to provide ballots in Spanish for Latino voters and another overturned a state-imposed ban on early-voting polling places on college campuses. 

The United Faculty of Florida (UFF), the union representing 25,000 higher education teachers, has denounced the actions by UF, saying in a press release, “If UF does not rescind its decision, it will establish a terrifying precedent for any Floridian who works in local or state government.”  

Austin, a tenured professor and one of only 2% of full-time Black professors in the U.S., told the Herald she will continue to fight for the right to speak out. 

“For me, this is about my role as an African American female mentor,’’ Austin wrote in a statement included in the UF news release. “A Southern Black woman who is not fighting for voting rights is a sell-out to her community. I refuse to teach my students that it is important to fight for voting and civil rights and then not fight for those rights myself.”

“My father was born in 1938 and my mother in 1940 in Robinsonville, Mississippi. They couldn’t even think about voting for many years and lived in poverty as sharecroppers until they moved to the city of Memphis as young adults. They would be outraged if they knew that their daughter has a Ph.D., is a tenured professor, is among only 2% of black female full professors in the nation, but is now refusing to fight to protect voting rights. If Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer could lose their jobs, then I could lose mine too, but not without a fight.

UF should defend the rights of three of its most committed and award-winning faculty members and not cave into pressure from outside statewide forces,” Austin said.

In a letter to UF, attorneys Paul Donnelly and Conor Flynn wrote, “The university cannot silence the professors on matters of great public importance. These professors are citizens entitled to participate in the marketplace of ideas.”

Friday, McDonald tweeted a video of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” He and his colleagues “are the faculty being denied our constitutional right to free speech by the university,” he wrote.

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