A federal judge sharply criticized a University of Florida attorney Friday during a hearing on whether the free speech rights of six faculty members were violated after the attorney charged some of the professors of not having standing to plead their cause because they had violated the political school.
Chief Justice Mark Walker of Tallahassee called a ‘squirrel’ the University of Florida attorney’s effort to present evidence about three of the six professors when both sides had agreed he would not be necessary to take statements or gather evidence. Furthermore, the judge said there was nothing “new” about what attorney H. Christopher Bartolomucci wanted to present since it was already part of the public record.
“It strains your credulity to suggest that these are newly discovered facts,” Walker said. “I find this 11th hour epiphany on your part to be questionable.”
Six professors have sued the University of Florida, claiming it infringed their First Amendment rights by requiring them to obtain approval before serving as expert witnesses in outside cases. They claimed their requests were denied by the university because they conflicted with the administration of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and are seeking a preliminary injunction to block the university’s policy.
The judge said he would try to make a decision within the next 10 days.
Before being dressed by the judge during Friday’s hearing, Bartolomucci said three of the professors, Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith worked as experts in external affairs before they submitted applications for ‘approval. The University of Florida attorney called their actions “misconduct” and “flagrant disregard of process.”
“Politics didn’t put them off,” Bartolomucci said in a phone hearing. “They don’t have standing. They didn’t follow the process.”
Last fall, the university barred the three professors from testifying as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new Florida election law that critics say restricts the right to vote.
Faced with a wave of criticism, UF President Kent Fuchs asked the office responsible for approving professors’ outside work to give the green light to their request. Fuchs and other university administrators appointed a task force that affirmed the school’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom, and said there would be a presumption of approval when professors ask to act as expert witnesses.
The university argued that since the policy was changed and the professors failed to prove that they were wronged, an injunction is not necessary.
But a lawyer for the teachers, David O’Neill, told the judge on Friday the case was not about what happened in the past but about what will happen in the future.
School administrators “came in and attacked faculty members who have worked at this school for decades,” O’Neill said.
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