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Judge takes aim at UF arguments in professors’ battle




In a fiery hearing Friday, a federal judge excoriated a lawyer for the University of Florida who accused political science professors of having “misled” the court in a lawsuit challenging the school’s conflict-of-interest policy.

Christopher Bartolomucci, who represents University of Florida officials, received a tongue-lashing from Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker after arguing that “newly discovered facts” revealed “misconduct” by political science professors Sharon Austin, Michael McDonald and Daniel Smith.

The tenured professors filed the lawsuit after university officials denied their requests to serve as plaintiffs’ witnesses in a legal battle about a 2021 state elections law (SB 90) that would, in part, make it harder for Floridians to vote by mail. In denying the professors’ requests, university officials said that going against the executive branch of the state government was “adverse” to the school’s interests.

The professors, who were joined by three other faculty members in the lawsuit, contend that the university’s conflict-of-interest policy violates First Amendment rights, discriminates based on viewpoint and content and has a “chilling” effect. The plaintiffs have asked Walker for a preliminary injunction to block the policy, adopted in mid-2020, from being enforced.

Bartolomucci said Friday that evidence uncovered Wednesday showed that the professors had already begun working on the elections case before their requests to serve as witnesses were rejected.

“This court should not enjoin a process that the plaintiffs don’t even abide by. There’s no chilling effect. The policy didn’t chill them. … These plaintiffs went to work even before they made a request,” Bartolomucci argued.

The lawyer also reiterated arguments that the plaintiffs lack “standing” to sue the university because they aren’t being harmed by the policy.

“These plaintiffs aren’t injured by the process. They don’t even honor the process,” Bartolomucci said, suggesting that Friday’s hearing should be postponed until the defendants were allowed to file “supplemental” briefs on the issue.

But an irate Walker said he was “mystified” by Bartolomucci’s “newly discovered” facts. The judge noted that he had given lawyers for the defendants — University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, Provost Joseph Glover and UF’s Board of Trustees — ample opportunity to take depositions and conduct discovery before hearings last week and Friday.

The timing of the filing of the professors’ expert reports in the elections case is “a matter of public record,” Walker said during a telephone hearing attended by national media outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN and The Washington Post.

“I’m just perplexed, and I’ll go so far as it strains credulity, for you to suggest that these are newly discovered facts when placed in context that it’s all part of the public record,” Walker said. “I’m flummoxed that you’re saying that these are the very reports and the expert testimony we’re talking about, yet ‘judge we had no idea, none at all.’ I’m just flabbergasted, in the last two days I learned the earth is not round and there’s gambling in Casablanca. … I’m using strong language for a reason, because at the end of the day both you and Mr. O’Neill [David O’Neill, an attorney for the professors] are officers of the court before you are lawyers representing a client.”

Bartolomucci said lawyers for the defendants “pieced the facts together” after learning of them Wednesday night and argued that the timing of the expert witness reports and the requests was not included in the plaintiffs’ legal complaint, drawing another rebuke from the judge.

“When did you decide, Mr. Bartolomucci, other than, ‘We really don’t have a defense … we’re going to … for the press’ benefit on this hearing drop this bombshell and attack the professors for having unclean hands,’” Walker said. “I view this 11th-hour epiphany on your part to be questionable. But again, did this miraculously come up as an issue?”

Bartolomucci said the defendants’ lawyers “began to research the filings in the election case” Wednesday night.

“I’ve heard enough,” Walker interrupted, adding, “serious ethics issues, I think, now exist in this case.”

The UF conflict-of-interest policy drew a national spotlight after the political science professors were blocked from testifying in the elections case. Fuchs ultimately walked back the decision, saying the professors would be allowed to be paid as plaintiffs’ experts if they did so on their own time and did not use school resources. Fuchs also quickly assembled a task force to review the issue and signed off on recommended changes to the conflict-of-interest policy.

Under the revised policy, there is a “strong presumption” that the university will approve faculty or staff requests to testify as expert witnesses.

But the lawsuit maintains that the revised policy doesn’t go far enough.

UF has had “multiple opportunities … to say what should be obvious to any university administrator: We will never attempt to prohibit faculty from speaking as citizens because of the content of their speech or popularity of their opinions,”

O’Neill, the plaintiffs’ attorney, argued Friday.

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“The university’s interest is not the interest of the majority party in the state Legislature or its current governor. That is academic freedom 101,” he said.

To bolster their arguments about the policy, the plaintiffs have pointed to comments by UF Board of Trustees Chairman Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, who lashed out at unidentified professors during a board meeting in November.

Hosseini accused faculty members of having “taken advantage of their positions” by using their university jobs “to improperly advocate personal political viewpoints to the exclusion of others. … Our legislators are not going to put up with the wasting of state money and resources, and neither is this board.”

O’Neill said Friday that Bartolomucci “has done an excellent job of explaining the chill that these plaintiffs and other faculty members are subject to” under the conflict-of-interest policy.

“Far from walking away from the initial denials … the defendants are now doubling down on them and making it clear that these plaintiffs may be subject to punishment for their refusal to follow what they strongly believe is an unconstitutional prior restraint,” he argued.

Walker last week rejected a request by university leaders to dismiss the case. The judge said Friday he expects to issue a ruling on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction within 10 days.

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Despite virtual classes, students pack the Watsco center against UNC



UM students packed the Watsco Center on Tuesday, January 18 to support the men's basketball team in their win over North Carolina.
UM students packed the Watsco Center on Tuesday, January 18 to support the men’s basketball team in their win over North Carolina. Photo credit: Alex Carnochan

More than 100 students stood lined up outside the Watsco Center, clamoring to get in to catch the end of the first half.

Miami men’s basketball, now 6-1 in the ACC, tore through North Carolina 85-57 at home Tuesday night, the same night classes started, virtually.

UM students, though extremely appreciative to be allowed inside the Watsco Center to cheer on the Canes, expressed a degree of confusion.

“I’m confused as to why I’m not allowed to go into an academic setting wearing a mask with my peers but I am allowed to go into an athletic school-spirit setting doing the same thing, because it seems to me like both things are important but at the core level of what this school is about, shouldn’t we be focusing on academics?” said Jack St. Hilaire, a senior majoring in computer science, during halftime of the game.

President Julio Frenk announced in December that the first two weeks of classes would be conducted exclusively online because of COVID-19, with students allowed to move into their on-campus dorms anytime during that period. The dining halls on campus currently are available for take-out only, but the Wellness Center is operating with no added restrictions. All indoor activities for the first two weeks were moved to a virtual format and student organizations are only allowed to hold meetings virtually.

However, Tuesday night, roughly 1,200 students packed the student section of the Watsco Center.

“I’m a little confused why the only thing in South Florida that I can’t do is go to class in-person,” said senior Brett Nemetz.

Frenk reiterated many times in the fall semester that COVID-19 transmission in classrooms is essentially nonexistent.

“Working together, we have achieved zero in-classroom transmission and have found effective ways to manage cases on campus so we can provide an enriching experience for our students, faculty, staff and community,” Frenk said in an email to students on Dec. 14, 2021.

The decision to have virtual class the first two weeks upset many students that were hoping for a continued sense of normality after a relatively uneventful fall-2021 semester.

“It seems like their messaging is really confusing and makes the decision to go online seem unsure,” said Katie Devore, a senior majoring in marine science and mathematics.

This Saturday, the Canes take on Florida State at the Watsco Center in a highly-anticipated rematch of their first matchup on January 11, which the Seminoles won 65-64 in Tallahassee. There will undoubtedly be more students in attendance at that game than Tuesday’s game.

Miami’s players and coaches acknowledge how much of a difference it makes to play a game when there’s a big student section.

“That makes a huge difference for our players to have the support from the community and the student body,” Miami head men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga said after the win over North Carolina. “I give a lot of credit to the student body, they were terrific. Our players went into the stands to thank them for that.”

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A Canadian restaurant had to close its dining room because it accepted dog photos in lieu of proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests




(CNN) — A restaurant in Alberta was forced to briefly close its dining room after the health department found patrons were showing photos of dogs instead of proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test, as mandated by the Canadian province.

Alberta Health Services ordered The Granary Kitchen in Red Deer to temporarily close last Friday after the department received complaints and launched an investigation January 11.

During the investigation, the health department sent two test shoppers at different times and both were able to enter and dine in after showing a photo of a dog and personal identification, in lieu of meeting requirements, the health agency said.

As part of the Restrictions Exemption Program, restaurants and bars are required to ask Albertans 12 and older to show proof of vaccination, a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of service or documentation of a medical exemption.

Canada has seen a steep rise in cases as the Omicron variant spreads. The country recorded 294,437 new cases for the week ending January 9, according to Johns Hopkins University figures, its highest weekly total of the pandemic.

“In both instances, facility staff used a tablet to make it appear as if they were scanning a QR code when in fact the staff member was presented with a photograph of a dog,” the Alberta Health Services order said. “The staff member then proceeded to ask the test shopper for personal identification and offered dine in services.”

The Granary’s indoor dining area was ordered to remain closed until the owners took steps to ensure that the restaurant would implement the Restrictions Exemption Program in full compliance, provide training to all staff on how to implement the program with written confirmation that training had been complete and to attend an administrative hearing with Environmental Public Health to demonstrate that all steps have been completed.

“To our valued guests, we had an unfortunate circumstance at our front door which involved one of our underage hostesses, and the requirements for the REP program,” The Granary Kitchen wrote on Facebook on Friday. “We are taking the weekend to retrain and regroup. We look forward to serving you again as soon as we are ready to reopen.”

“In closing we would like to remind everyone of the tremendous pressure being placed on front staff, and please remember to be kind.”

Alberta Health Services rescinded the closing order Monday, according to a letter from the department, and the Granary Kitchen reopened its dining room the same day. Patrick Malkin, one of restaurant’s owners, told CNN on Wednesday that Alberta Health Services was “very pleased” with the actions taken to move forward.

“These are difficult time for restaurants in Canada and abroad,” Malkin said. “We look forward to better days ahead for the industry as a whole.”

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Amazon is opening a clothing store next to Nordstrom and JC Penney




(CNN) — Amazon has a new venture outside of e-commerce, cloud computing, content streaming, smart devices, Whole Foods, cashier-less technology or anything else you’ve come to associate with one of the most successful companies in American history.

It’s a physical clothing store. Like, you know, a real brick-and-mortar space where you go try on stuff, buy it and then bring it home. An IRL store. Google it if you’ve never been to one.

Amazon announced Thursday that it will open Amazon Style, its first clothing, shoe and accessories’ store later this year at a posh shopping complex in Los Angeles. The 30,000-square-foot store’s next door neighbors will be some of the traditional clothing and department stores Amazon has pressured over the last decade — Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, H&M and others. There’s a JCPenney across the street, one of the most prominent casualties of the transformation of US retail spurred by Amazon.

It may seem surprising that Amazon, which has grown to become the largest clothing retailer in America since it started selling clothing in 2002, wants to open a physical store. But in-store purchases still make up more than 85% of US retail sales, and shoppers often want to see how clothes look, feel and fit before they buy. It can also be more difficult to find new clothing brands and styles browsing online than in person.

“Customers enjoy doing a mix of online and in-store shopping. And that’s no different in fashion,” Simoina Vasen, the managing director of Amazon Style, said in an interview. “There’s so many great brands and designers, but discovering them isn’t always easy.”

There are some novelties to Amazon Style and ways the company hopes will make shopping quicker and more personalized for customers. However, many of the ideas Amazon is using in the store are not new to the retail industry.

Most of the clothing will be kept in the back of the store and only one sample of each item will be displayed on the sales floor. To buy it, customers will scan a QR code using a mobile Amazon shopping app and then retrieve it at the pickup counter. If they want to try it on first, they can get it sent to a fitting room, which has touchscreens where customers can request different sizes or colors. As customers browse the store and scan items, Amazon’s algorithms will recommend other items they may be interested in buying.

Vasen said the store is a “truly unique experience,” but similar technology can be found at other retailers. At Nike flagship stores, for example, Nike app members scan codes on sneakers and clothes and those items are sent directly to a fitting room. Clothing brand Reformation displays only one of each item in its showrooms, and whatever customers want to try is delivered straight to dressing rooms that have different lighting options. American Eagle and others have tested interactive fitting rooms, where shoppers can request different sizes and styles on a tablet located in the room.

Amazon Style will offer a mix of hundreds of well-known brands (Vasen didn’t specify which) and its own private-label brands. Retail analysts have said a brick-and-mortar presence in clothing could help Amazon reach customers who want to shop in person and also drive growth of Amazon’s more profitable— but lesser-known — private labels.

Other advantages to a physical store: Customers can also drop off their Amazon returns at the store, or order online and pick them up there.

Amazon has been working on this clothing initiative for years, said Vasen, who has helped build out Amazon’s physical store presence and also directed Amazon’s Prime Now grocery delivery service. She did not say when the first Amazon Style store will open this year or how many Amazon plans to add in the future.

Amazon Style will be the company’s latest attempt to move into physical retail, an area it has struggled to crack.

In 2015, Amazon opened its first physical store, Amazon Books, in Seattle. Two years later, Amazon bought Whole Foods’ 471 stores for $13.7 billion. The company also has dozens of 4-Star stores, where it sells its highest-rated merchandise, and Amazon Go cashier-less convenience stores. It’s building a new, separate line of grocery stores, called Amazon Fresh, to chase a mid-market shopper, different from Whole Foods’ high-end customer base.

As of December 31, 2020, Amazon had 611 physical stores in North America, including Whole Foods, according to its latest annual filing.

Amazon has not enjoyed the same level of success with physical stores as it has online. Sales at Amazon’s physical stores dropped 0.18% in 2019 from the year prior to $17.2 billion and 5.6% in 2020 as more shoppers ordered online in the pandemic.

During its latest results in the nine months ending September 30, Amazon’s sales at physical stores ticked up 1.5% from the same stretch a year prior.

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