Congressional panel to investigate UF over free speech allegations

In a strongly worded letter Thursday, members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform told University of Florida President Kent Fuchs they would be investigating a possible violation of First Amendment rights following the school’s recent decision to bar professors from testifying against the state.

While the letter acknowledges Fuchs’ reversal — he cleared three professors to testify after all and formed a task force to address the issue — it also said committee members still had questions for the university, which receives federal funds.

The letter comes after a lawsuit by six professors against the school and repeated calls for an external investigation from the university’s faculty union and senate, both of which raised questions about the school’s actions.

“The Subcommittee is investigating the extent to which your university’s actions have undermined the integrity of academic freedom and interfered with employees’ constitutional right to speak freely as private citizens on matters of great public concern,” the letter said. “In addition, we seek to understand the extent to which federally funded universities use conflicts-of-interest policies to censor employees who oppose the interests of the political party in power.”

Protecting First Amendment rights “falls squarely within Congress’s constitutional oversight authority,” they wrote, adding that Congress has previously investigated other First Amendment issues under Democratic and Republican leadership.

The committee gave the school a Dec. 2 deadline to respond to an eight-part records request, including a list of all denials to participate in activities based on UF’s conflict of interest policy since 2015. The letter also asked for detailed explanations and all communications surrounding any revisions to the policy.

University spokesman Steve Orlando said the university had acknowledged receipt of the letter to the committee and is working to respond. The task force launched by Fuchs is slated to provide their recommendations on the conflict of interest policy by Nov. 29.

The letter was signed by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairperson of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, a UF alumna who spearheaded an earlier letter from Florida’s Democratic delegation to the university seeking information.

“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 letter said. “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.”

Wasserman Schultz, also a member of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said in an email statement that the letter was intended to “stream Sunshine and bring out of the shadows, any suppressive forces who seek to tarnish the sterling reputation of my alma mater.”

“The relentless disdain for facts, science and dissent exhibited by Gov. DeSantis fosters an unhealthy climate of censorship, so it is no surprise then that his incessant bullying of educators across Florida led us to this point,” she wrote.

Rep. Byron Donalds, one of two Florida Republicans on the committee, said he disagrees with the UF professors, who plan to testify against the state’s new voting law, but believes they have the right to express their views, and he shares the concerns of his colleagues regarding free speech.

“I am a strong champion of the First Amendment — and I encourage my fellow committee members to express their concerns with censorship on college campuses and the prohibition of conservative speakers and speech, which is frequently happening on college campuses,” the Naples representative said in an email. “While I disagree with the professors’ feelings towards Florida’s inclusive and accessible voting measures, I think the faculty should be allowed to participate in a dialogue intended to determine Florida’s future.”