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Plaintiffs drop academic freedom suit against New College

Written by on Saturday, February 17, 2024

In response, Corcoran channels Julius Caesar. But the lawsuit may come back.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Feb. 16, 2024

Host: The professors and students that sue the State of Florida and New College, alleging infringement on academic freedom, dropped their suit. In a press release, New College President Richard Corcoran declared victory. Our news team took a closer look. Disclosure: The spouse of the author of this report is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Johannes Werner: In a press release published on Thursday, New College President Richard Corcoran channeled Julius Caesar in a key moment, when the future dictator of Rome was about to overthrow the Republic.

“We are crossing the Rubicon,” Corcoran said in the press release. He went on to say this: “New College of Florida is making significant progress toward becoming the top liberal arts college in the nation. It is time to put this lawsuit behind us and come together to realize the immense potential of New College as a thriving educational institution.”

Caesar, crossing the Rubicon to overthrow the Republic. 1875 painting by Adolphe Yvon

The press release then listed “achievements that show New College’s readiness for growth and the preservation of academic freedom”. The list ranged from a rise in student enrollment, to hiring of new faculty, to the Caples Mansion historic tour.

The six-month old lawsuit alleged that SB 266, a new law that regulates higher education in Florida, infringed on freedom of speech. The end of the lawsuit came after the plaintiffs voluntarily filed for “dismissal without prejudice”. That means they could return to court if they suffer any harm at the hands of the state or New College. During a hearing in federal court in Tallahassee last fall, the judge raised the issue of standing. He suggested the complaint came too early, because the state was just about to implement the new law, and none of the professors and students had suffered any evident harm yet.

Jono Miller represents NCF Freedom, the alumni-powered group that funded the suit.

Jono Miller: The other side was seeking a complete dismissal, you know, sort of throw it out, and that’s the end of it. And so we engaged in an alternative, which was a voluntary dismissal. The problem we were experiencing with the judge was the perception that we had either a standing or ripeness issue, wherein not enough damage had been done for us to have standing. Things weren’t bad enough yet.

JW: Miller says that the lawsuit did achieve one goal: It put the state and the New College administration on notice.

Jono Miller

JM: It continues to be hanging out there, and hopefully will serve as motivation for the State of Florida to not pursue these, you know, some of the other … It’s on the books, technically, but as long as they don’t get more aggressive about inhibiting the First Amendment rights of our students and faculty, we might have sort of stopped it at that point. It seems like it’s good news either way. If they continue in their behaviors, we can come back to it, which we wouldn’t have been able to do if the judge dismissed that totally. And we think it has an effect of creating a situation where they’ll be more cautious about attempting to impose themselves, knowing that there’s likely legal action. 

JW: Miller suggested the lawsuit could have been just the opening salvo. If any professors or student are restricted in their academic freedom, they could file suit again.

JM: If the State of Florida takes further action to limit the First Amendment rights of our students and faculty, that could then put us in a position to go back and successfully address the issues related to standing.

This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.

 

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