University of South Florida. Credit: USF Facebook page
The DeSantis administration has drawn another lawsuit over legislation abrogating faculty rights to have neutral arbiters review employment decisions, this time on behalf of instructors laid off this summer at the University of South Florida.
A 35-page complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee follows a similar lawsuit filed by the United Faculty of Florida on behalf of its members at the New College of Florida on Aug. 4, alleging violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreements (CBA).
Union President Andrew Gothard didn’t rule out additional lawsuits.
“UFF will continue to enforce the contractual and constitutional rights of our members,” Gothard said by email.
“Whether we will file additional suits at additional universities is entirely dependent upon whether local administrations intend to respect the rights of faculty, students, and the broader higher education community. Rest assured, however, that UFF is prepared to fight injustice on behalf of our members whenever and wherever necessary.”
Both complaints attack this year’s SB 266, a major reorganization of Florida’s higher education system that included a ban on taking employment disputes to arbitration; under the law, university presidents get the last word.
Broadly speaking, the law asserts gubernatorial control over public higher education, restricting efforts to achieve diversity within the campus community and instruction in controversial subjects including gender studies and racial politics, effectively imposing DeSantis’ conservative ideology.
That arbitration ban conflicts with another state law guaranteeing the right to neutral arbitration plus a collective bargaining agreement that will remain in force through next Aug. 4, the legal brief argues.
“The only justification for the arbitration ban that the state has asserted is that it makes it easier for university presidents — who are selected by political appointees — to replace existing professors with others more in line with that president’s political views,” the document reads.
“But Florida has no compelling or legitimate interest in replacing current faculty members because of their political views, as such conduct is forbidden by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” it continues.
The complaint alleges the university violated Article I, Section 10, of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from “impairing the obligation of contracts,” namely the UFF’s collective bargaining agreement. It also asserts a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment in that it abrogated the faculty’s property right in having their negotiated contract honored.
Additionally, it argues the law imposes “severe, adverse effects on plaintiffs.”
“After more than a decade of work for the University of South Florida, the individual plaintiffs have been deprived of their lives’ work and their livelihoods without the baseline contractual protections accorded under the CBA and in violation of their property rights as established by the CBA and their employment contracts,” the brief says.
“The arbitration ban also threatens the academic freedom of the individual plaintiffs and other members of the union plaintiffs. It promotes self-censorship and impairs their ability to publish and express their ideas because one wrong comment or writing in the eyes of a university president could cause these faculty members to lose their livelihoods and academic standing.”
The complaint seeks a court order blocking enforcement of the ban and requiring the university to honor the union contract.
The named plaintiffs include UFF, its USF chapter, and David Braasch, Tamara McLaughlin, and Lisana Mohamed, instructors in English for international students and others for whom it was a second language. They were let go on Aug. 4 — the very day that the union sued over the New College of Florida bargaining agreement.
The named defendants are members of the state university system’s board of governors and USF’s board of trustees.
The arbitration ban took effect at USF on July 1 of this year, according to the complaint. Arbitrations begun before that date could proceed but those to have begun later were blocked, even for faculty who had filed grievances earlier but hadn’t yet begun arbitration.
The situation is fundamentally unfair, the brief asserts.
“The arbitration ban allows the president of the University of South Florida — who is controlled by the university’s board of trustees and is a member of that board — to make final decisions in matters in which the board of trustees (including the university president) is itself a party, including the grievances of the individual plaintiffs. That inherent conflict also violates due process,” it says.
Separately, a group of New College professors and students sued this week in the federal court over SB 266’s alleged violation of their academic freedom.
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