Published on November 16, 2023, 4:32 pm
A federal judge has recently awarded attorneys more than $372,000 in legal fees for representing professors in a high-profile lawsuit against the University of Florida. The lawsuit was centered around the professors’ ability to serve as expert witnesses in court cases.
Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker rejected arguments by the university that it should not have to cover the fees. Instead, Walker awarded $372,219 in fees to attorneys from two firms and added an additional $1,575 in costs.
The judge’s decision was based on a preliminary injunction he issued in January 2022, which found that the university violated the professors’ First Amendment rights. Although the university appealed the decision, the case was ultimately dismissed this year after university officials adopted a revised policy regarding the disputed issues.
In his ruling, Judge Walker stated that “plaintiffs received enduring relief” through the preliminary injunction and subsequent rule change. He noted that this relief benefited not only the professors but also the entire faculty community at the University of Florida by removing an unconstitutional barrier to exercising their expertise.
The University of Florida argued against awarding attorney fees, claiming that the professors’ victory was merely minor and technical since they had voluntarily changed aspects of their policy prior to the lawsuit. However, Judge Walker disagreed with this argument, emphasizing that he had found an unconstitutional prior restraint imposed by the university on faculty and staff seeking to testify as expert witnesses.
The plaintiffs in this case were represented by attorneys from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and Donnelly + Gross LLP law firms.
This lawsuit garnered significant attention as it involved tenured political-science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald, Daniel Smith, and another professor Jeffrey Goldhagen. They filed the lawsuit after university officials denied their requests to serve as witnesses for groups challenging a state elections law in court. The university later reversed its decision and allowed them to testify if they did so outside of their regular job duties without using university resources.
The case serves as an example of the importance of protecting First Amendment rights and ensuring that academics can freely share their expertise in legal proceedings. It underscores the role of the judiciary in upholding these fundamental rights to benefit not only the individuals involved but also the broader community.