Debevoise Wins Significant First Amendment Ruling Against the University of Florida

24 January 2022

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP won a preliminary injunction against the University of Florida on behalf of a group of professors in a critical First Amendment battle over the independence of public research universities. The professors sued the leaders of the University, arguing that they had illegally used a “conflict-of-interest” policy to limit faculty from participating in court cases when their opinions challenged policies of the DeSantis Administration. In a published decision issued on January 21, 2022, the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Florida granted the professors a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the University from applying the policy and concluding that it violated the faculty’s First Amendment rights.

In the Summer of 2021, University of Florida political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald, and Daniel Smith agreed to act as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in litigation challenging Senate Bill 90, a voting restriction bill signed into law by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Around the same time, a leading professor of pediatrics, Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, agreed to testify as an expert in litigation challenging the DeSantis Administration’s ban on mask mandates in Florida schools. Although the University had routinely permitted and even encouraged such testimony in the past, it sought to prohibit all of these professors from speaking on the ground that faculty participation in court cases against the Executive Branch of the State presented a “conflict of interest” for the University. The firm succeeded in forcing the University to reverse the denials under intense public pressure, and then sought an injunction preventing the school from continuing its unconstitutional policy of choosing what faculty viewpoints to permit based on the anticipated reactions of the State government.

Litigation partner David O’Neil commented: “[This] decision underscores the critical role of faculty free speech and academic freedom in the health of our democracy. The University may no longer prohibit faculty members from sharing their views with courts and the public just because the ruling political party doesn’t want to hear their truth. The decision sends a clear message to public universities across the country – and to politicians who would try to interfere with them – that they too must honor the constitutional principles that make the college campus a pillar of a free society.”

The case is particularly important because the University of Florida’s tactics, if not called out and stopped, could provide a playbook for other State governments who wish to coopt their public universities for political ends.

The Debevoise team was led by litigation partner David O’Neil, associates Morgan A. Davis, Jaime Freilich-Fried, Samuel Rosh, Soren Schwab, Alexandra Swain, and Katharine Witteman. Debevoise represented the plaintiffs with Donnelly & Gross PLLC, who served as co-counsel to the professors.