According to The New York Times, university officials told the professors that the school was a state institution, and that assisting the lawsuit would be "adverse to UF's interests." The university is now facing a lawsuit aimed at determining whether Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida influenced the university's decision.
Mr DeSantis has been unwilling to answer questions regarding the ban, arguing that his communications — normally a matter of public record — should be considered privileged because they deal with the passing of legislation.
The lawyers filing the suit rejected those claims, arguing that any law that discriminates against minority groups supersedes state protections.
University professors — even at the University of Florida — regularly participate in lawsuits, even in those that oppose the party leading the state.
Experts speaking with The Times said they knew of no similar restrictions on professors’ free speech and court testimony in any other public university across the nation.
Hessy Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the university, defended the movie in a statement, claiming that the school has a "long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so.”
“The university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom” of the professors, she said. “Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”
One of the professors participating in the lawsuit, Dr Daniel A Smith, has previously testified in two voting rights lawsuits against Florida's Republican-led government in 2018.
Lawyers challenging the state's new law claim that the legislation disproportionally impacts the ability of Black and Hispanic voters to participate in elections. They sought to hire the professors to assist in their lawsuit.
The university's dean of the college of arts and sciences, David Richardson, ruled against one of the professors, arguing that “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.”
A university vice president rejected the requests from the other two professors involved.
Henry Reichman, an author of two books focused on academic freedom, told The Times that the state's restrictions were "crazy."
“The whole purpose of a university and academic freedom is to allow scholars free rein to conduct research,” Mr. Reichman said. “The ultimate logic of this is that you can be an expert in the United States, except in the state where you’re actually working and being paid by the state.”