Washington, D.C. (November 18, 2020)—Today, Rep. Jamie Raskin, Chair of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Committee Member Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz sent a letter to the President of the University of Florida (UF) requesting information about the university’s conflicts-of-interest policies following concerning reports that UF has prevented professors from exercising their First Amendment rights.
“We are concerned that UF is censoring its faculty based on viewpoint, which would set a dangerous precedent that flies in the face of its own commitment to freedom of expression,” the Members wrote. “We are also concerned that, possibly due to pressure from trustees, politicians, or others, UF has adopted and enforced a conflicts policy that undermines the academic and free speech values that are essential to American higher education. As one of the top five public research universities in the nation, UF must ensure that it is not creating the appearance of anticipatory obedience or that it is responding to political pressure in deciding which speech activities it will permit.”
In July 2020, UF revised its conflicts-of-interest policy to require all employees to seek approval from the university before engaging in outside activities. The previous policy only required employees to notify the university of their outside activities and financial interests. UF professors objected to this change, expressing concern that the policy would be “used as a prior restraint on speech.” Their fears were confirmed when the university subsequently prevented multiple faculty members from participating in litigation raising legal and constitutional concerns related to criminal justice reform, voter suppression laws, and mask mandates in Florida.
In one instance, UF blocked three professors from testifying as expert witnesses in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new restrictive voting law. University officials explained that because the school is a state institution, participating in lawsuits that conflict with Governor Ron DeSantis’ administration “is adverse to UF’s interests.” After a backlash, the university indicated it would reverse course and allow the professors to participate, but it remains unclear whether UF’s restrictive conflicts-of-interest policy remains in effect.
In their letter, Chairman Raskin and Rep. Wasserman-Schultz requested documents and communications regarding the creation of UF’s conflicts-of-interest policy and the university’s denials of faculty requests to engage in outside activities.
Click here to read the letter to University of Florida President Dr. W. Kent Fuchs.