UF appeals a decision that it must pay attorney fees for violating professors’ First Amendment rights

UF higher education university
University of Florida, Gainesville, at dawn. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (Apr. 2023).

©2023 The News Service of Florida

The University of Florida on Tuesday appealed a judge’s ruling that would require it to pay more than $372,000 in legal fees in a lawsuit filed by professors about serving as expert witnesses in court cases.

A lawyer for university officials filed a notice that is a first step in challenging the ruling at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. As is common, the notice did not include detailed arguments.

The move came after Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker last week issued a 35-page ruling that rejected arguments by the university that it should not have to cover the fees.

Walker awarded $372,219 in fees to attorneys from two firms, while also tacking on $1,575 in costs.

Walker based the decision, at least in part, on a preliminary injunction that he issued in January 2022, finding that the university violated the professors’ First Amendment rights.

The university appealed the injunction, and the case was ultimately dismissed this year after university officials adopted a revised policy about the disputed issues.

Tenured political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith filed the lawsuit in 2021 after university officials denied their requests to serve as witnesses for groups fighting a state elections law in court.

In denying the professors’ requests, university officials said going against the executive branch of the state government was “adverse” to the school’s interests.

The case drew widespread attention, and the university walked back the decision on the professors’ testimony in the elections case.

Then-university President Kent Fuchs said they would be allowed to be paid to testify if they did so on their own time and did not use university resources.

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