Debevoise Partner David O’Neil Named The American Lawyer’s “Litigator of the Week” for First Amendment Victory

28 January 2022

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP white collar partner David O’Neil, along with his co-counsel Paul Donnelly of Donnelly & Gross, have been named Litigators of the Week” by The American Lawyer for their First Amendment victory against the University of Florida. “Litigators of the Week” are “recognized for their achievements in the nation's most complex high-profile cases” and “are impacting the biggest breakthrough decisions in America's courtrooms.” Mr. O’Neil was also named a “Litigator of the Year” finalist by The American Lawyer in 2020.

Mr. O’Neil secured a preliminary injunction against the University of Florida for six professors after they were barred from offering expert testimony against the state of Florida. The case arose when the University of Florida, which had long encouraged faculty members to serve as expert witnesses for or against the State, abruptly began prohibiting professors from participating as expert witnesses in litigation challenging signature policies of the DeSantis administration.

With the assistance of Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Donnelly, the silenced professors demonstrated to the public how the University was illegally suppressing core political speech. In November 2021, just one week after Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Donnelly sent a letter to the University’s President and Provost, the University caved on the immediate issue and withdrew the prohibition on one of the political science professors’ testimony. By then, however, it had become clear that the University’s actions were part of a pattern based on a policy to prohibit faculty testimony “adverse” to the ruling party in the State government. To secure long-term protection for free speech rights, on that same day Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Donnelly sued the University’s President and its Board of Trustees. They then sought a preliminary injunction stopping the University from continuing to suppress faculty speech.

Following the submission of five briefs and two consecutive weeks of oral arguments by Mr. O’Neil, Judge Mark Walker of the Northern District of Florida ruled in favor of the professors. The Judge granted the plaintiff’s motion to enjoin the University of Florida from continuing to silence professors who wish to speak as expert witnesses opposing the State of Florida.

The case is personal for Mr. O’Neil, whose late father was the President of two large public Universities – Virginia and Wisconsin – as well as a First Amendment scholar who devoted his professional life to advancing the cause of academic freedom.

The Debevoise team includes associates Morgan A. Davis, Alexandra Swain, Jaime Freilich-Fried, Samuel Rosh, Soren Schwab and Katharine Witteman. The Donnelly & Gross team includes Paul Donnelly and Conor Flynn.