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The University of Florida & The Role of University Expert Witnesses

November 24, 2021

University professors are a staple within the expert witness world, consulting and testifying for a diverse array of cases that match their expertise. We started in the expert witness recruiting space by connecting attorneys with academic experts back in 1995, and we are deeply passionate and enthusiastic about the thoughtfulness and rigor these renowned experts bring to the table. As such, we were not surprised by the University of Florida’s recent reversal of their decision to bar three active professors from testifying against the sitting gubernatorial administration.  

Background on Decision 

Prior to the reversal, in October 2021, the University of Florida decided to bar three of its professors from assisting plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at overturning a new state law that restricts voting rights. Representatives from the university stated the basis for this decision resided in the fact that the school is a state institution; consequently, collaborating with a lawsuit against the state “is adverse to U.F.’s interests.” This stance had many legal teams considering the limits being imposed on both First Amendment rights and academic freedom.  

Historically, American universities and colleges have permitted professors to act as academic expert witnesses, provide consultation services and testimony in the courtroom. This has been the case even in situations in which an academic opposes the interest of the existing political party in power. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is resisting questioning related to the legislation that was passed and whether he was involved in the decision to bar these three professors. Despite the governor’s claims that his communications are protected from disclosure, the plaintiffs contend the federal questions regarding the law discriminating against minority groups supersede these state protections.  

Reversing Course 

After a highly publicized and controversial week, the University of Florida backtracked on its previous decision and stated the professors should not be barred from testifying. This reversal is in large part due to the massive opposition from professors and experts around the country, and pushback for an attempt to discriminate against and silence professors based on their views on significant issues related to the public good.  

An email was circulated around the campus earlier this month on behalf of University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, stating he was formally requesting the Conflicts of Interest office permit all three professors to testify in the federal lawsuit.  

The Current Situation

Despite the progress made here, there are still some loose ends regarding similar situations in the future. According to Paul Donnelly and David A. O’Neil, the professor’s legal representatives, “[The University has] made no commitment to abandon its policy preventing academics from serving as expert witnesses when the University thinks that their speech may be adverse to the State and whatever political agenda politicians want to promote.” 

To many, Fuchs is merely handling a PR incident by allowing for exceptions to be made without reversing the overall policy. The University of Florida has risen in the rankings, landing the number five spot on the U.S News and World Report’s 2022 list of best public schools. This ranking is now being threatened by the repercussions of this controversial decision to bar professors from testifying. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission is digging into the matter, investigating whether the decision violated academic freedom. 

A letter sent to Fuchs on November 2nd, requests a report be prepared that “explains the documents” and outlines the University’s compliance with all issues related to both academic freedom and external influence on its decision. The investigation will now proceed accordingly, as Fuchs has until December 7 to respond.  

For more than 25 years, Round Table Group has helped litigators locate, evaluate, and employ the best and most qualified expert witnesses. Round Table Group is a great complement to any litigator’s quest for an expert witness and our search is always free of charge. Contact us at 202-908-4500 for more information or start your expert search now. 

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