From The Washington Post:
The Plum Line
Opinion: The scandal involving Ron DeSantis and the silenced professors just got worse
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Oct. 28 in Lakeland, Fla. (Calvin Knight/The Ledger/AP)
By Greg Sargent
Today at 11:07 a.m. EDT
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has remained uncharacteristically quiet about the growing scandal at the University of Florida, which has barred numerous professors from testifying as expert witnesses in lawsuits challenging the Republican governor’s policies.
This is odd. After all, conservatives hewing to the DeSantis and Donald Trump style of politics rarely pass on an opportunity to posture as foils to pointy-headed elites such as university professors. Why has he been relatively mute thus far?
DeSantis’s office has now offered a new statement about the situation, and it confirms the basic problem for him here: It’s hard for him to address the issue without making the scandal worse, which is exactly what he just did.
The New York Times reports that DeSantis’s spokesperson is denying that he had any direct involvement in the university’s decision to bar professors from testifying. But in the process, DeSantis’s office has essentially endorsed the move, and arguably encouraged it to continue.
Which marks a new and ugly turn in the story.
To catch you up, the university declined to give approval to three professors to act as expert witnesses in a lawsuit challenging new voting restrictions that DeSantis signed last spring. The lawsuit argues, among other things, that the restrictions disproportionately burden non-White voters. The professors would testify to that point.
The university argues that it is part of the state, and because the lawsuits are being brought against state officials and agencies, it’s against the interests of the state — and by extension, against the university’s interests. That argument is deeply specious, and it has attracted intense criticism as a backdoor way of squelching academic freedom.
After this became a national controversy, the university offered another line: It said the professors could testify, but only if they did so pro bono. Yet it’s not clear why testifying while receiving outside pay is any more contrary to the university’s interests than testifying pro bono.
What’s more, professors were approved to testify while getting paid in the past. Indeed, as experts have argued, barring paid testimony — as opposed to pro bono testimony — continues to pose the same threat to academic freedom.
Importantly, these shifting requirements came into effect only with DeSantis as governor. Which has raised questions about whether he’s behind this in some way. He has allies on the university’s board of trustees, including its chairman, who is a DeSantis adviser and big GOP donor.
Now DeSantis’s spokesperson is denying any role. She told the Times: “This is an internal U.F. issue and not the sort of thing that the executive branch would be involved in.”
But that’s not the end of the story. Buried at the bottom of the Times piece, we find that DeSantis’s office is effectively endorsing the university’s policy of allowing only unpaid, pro bono testimony.
Mr. DeSantis’s spokeswoman echoed that argument in her statement, saying the Constitution “guarantees the right to free speech, but there is no right to profit from speech.”
That essentially blesses the university’s ongoing denial of its professors the option to offer paid testimony in lawsuits challenging the policies of state politicians.
This provides an opening to the professors to argue that DeSantis has effectively endorsed the university’s efforts to make it harder for professors to participate in lawsuits against his own policies.
“A public university cannot pick and choose what speech to support depending on whether it thinks politicians will approve of the message,” David O’Neil, the lawyer to the three professors involved in the voting rights lawsuit, told me. “That is what the University of Florida is doing.”
This is important in another way. Plaintiffs challenging Florida’s voting law are seeking discovery into communications between the governor’s office and the university that could illuminate any involvement in or support for the decision. This effective endorsement of the university’s moves strengthens the case for this.
It’s easy to imagine that the university will read this new statement as a green light to keep going. And notably, these policies are some of his biggest and most scrutinized moves.
DeSantis signed the voting law on Fox News, parading forth his willingness to restrict voting to the national conservative audience, potentially boosting his presidential aspirations. He has sought to turn his ban on mask mandates into a national right-wing cause celebre.
In an interesting twist, DeSantis must be more careful in advertising any support for the university’s role in legally protecting those policies. After all, this might put the university in a worse spot and make carrying that out harder.
But make no mistake: At a time when GOP politicians across the country are passing restrictions on voting, local mask requirements and critical race theory, and potentially facing lawsuits over them, this effort to restrict academic pushback, if it succeeds, could well become a template in other states.