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Some Florida professors are blocked from testifying in suits against the state

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A professor at the University of Florida says the university restricted his freedom of speech. He is a pediatrician and a professor at the College of Medicine. And he says the University of Florida told him he could not testify in a lawsuit, a case challenging Florida's ban on mask mandates in schools. This follows a separate case in which the university told three professors they could not be expert witnesses. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Jeffrey Goldhagen is a pediatrician and for nearly 30 years has been a professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. He's a public health expert who's testified in legal cases in the past. He was surprised when his routine request to testify in a case challenging the state's ban on face mask mandates was denied.

JEFFREY GOLDHAGEN: When I inquired as to the reason why, I received a response that was very terse. And then when I asked if there was an appeal process, there is no appeal process.

ALLEN: Goldhagen was told only that, quote, "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." Because it was an urgent matter of public health, Goldhagen says he testified anyway.

GOLDHAGEN: This is a critical issue. It's an issue of academic freedom. It's an issue of censorship. It's an issue of First Amendment rights. It's an issue that really gets to the core of the oath that physicians take.

ALLEN: News about Goldhagen's case, first reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, add to charges that the state's flagship university is succumbing to political influence and adopting policies that undermine academic freedom. It comes as the university is scrambling to quell a controversy it ignited when it told three political science professors they would not be allowed to testify in a voting rights case. The case, which challenges new restrictions on voting, names Governor DeSantis and other officials. The professors were told, quote, "Litigation against the state is adverse to UF's interests." The executive director of the union that represents the professors, Candi Churchill, is one of many who's asked, where is the conflict of interest?

CANDI CHURCHILL: I don't see how the voting rights law is a matter of - against the interests of the University of Florida or, frankly, against the interests of the governor. We should all be ensuring free and fair elections and access to the polls.

ALLEN: Churchill Roberts, a professor in the school's College of Journalism and a union representative, believes the conflict the university and its president, Ken Fuchs, are concerned about is with the governor and Florida's Republican-led Legislature.

CHURCHILL ROBERTS: The president doesn't want to do anything that would jeopardize funding, jeopardize the flow of money from the Legislature to the university.

ALLEN: Over the weekend, as stories about the case made national news, the University of Florida modified its position, saying it was only objecting to the professors being paid, and if they want to testify pro-bono, they'd be free to do so. Pediatrician and professor Jeffrey Goldhagen says he wasn't paid and that payment wasn't cited as a factor when his request to testify in the face mask case was denied. The university says it's convening a task force to review its conflict of interest policy, but the fallout continues. The organization that accredits the university has opened an inquiry. Democrats on Florida's congressional delegation have sent UF a letter condemning the action. Candi Churchill with the union United Faculty of Florida believes the university will pay a price for not upholding academic freedom.

CHURCHILL: This political interference will set us back a decade and make us a laughingstock in the world, really, for higher education. This is a five-alarm warning that, you know, you don't really have the right to criticize your government.

ALLEN: A spokesperson for Governor DeSantis says his office had nothing to do with the university's decision. And she called concerns this episode may damage the university's reputation or accreditation, quote, "patently absurd."

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAZER'S "HARLESDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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