TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — In a panel on voting rights and censorship, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-FL, pushed back on what he calls the ‘culture of fear’ that Ron DeSantis is creating as governor of Florida.

The congressman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate also leveled attacks at DeSantis’s six appointees on the university’s board of trustees over politicizing and censoring free speech at the university.

Addressing moves by the governor to further reform voting and election integrity in next year’s legislative session, and a block on three University of Florida professors to testify in a lawsuit against the state’s latest voting laws, Crist questioned DeSantis’s change of tune after the state reported it had had its most secure election in history during the 2020 races.

“The governor is turning his attention to striking fear and silencing academics and experts at our flagship university. The governor will sit here and claim that he had no role in the university’s choice to bar three professors, although that number is growing, from serving as expert witnesses in the lawsuit against his voting rights legislation, but the fact of the matter is the following,” Crist said. “That his six direct appointees to the thirteen member University of Florida board of trustees have contributed close to $1 million to the governor or the state Republican Party.”

The university has reportedly blocked three professors from testifying against SB 90, a voting bill passed in May, in a lawsuit. The governor’s office has said they did not play a part in what they call an internal UF issue, a position that is also stated in public releases from the university.

According to officials, the university had “denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”

While UF officials did say that as a state university, they are firmly committed to upholding the right to free speech and faculty members’ academic freedom.

“Finally, as has already been reported by some news organizations, if the professors wish to testify pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they are free to do so,” President Kent Fuchs and Provost and Senior Academic Affairs VP Joe Glover said in a previous statement.

Crist was joined by a panel of speakers, all concerned about the way the state government and university had acted, and called for leaders to walk back the censorship on campus.

Panel member David Arreola, a Gainesville city commissioner, also criticized the politicization of the university by DeSantis. He said the barring of professor testimony in the SB 90 lawsuit was creating uncertainty at the university.

“I really wish we weren’t here having to defend the very obvious, academic freedom. as a commissioner in Gainesville, the last week ahs been pretty harrowing in our city. friends, professors, students, administrators,” Arreola said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. that’s what happens when you create a culture of fear and a culture of silence at a public university.”

The panelists urged lawmakers to keep the voting options they passed in 2019, such as the ballot drop boxes.

Gov. DeSantis said on Wednesday that the 2022 legislative session’s election integrity reforms would limit ballot harvesting and improve election security, before announcing the goal of creating a state office for prosecuting election crimes, and possibly removing drop boxes altogether.

Yvette Lewis, the Hillsborough County NAACP branch president questioned that policy goal.

“I’m not understanding the reason behind all of the pushback on letting people have the right to vote. Giving them the options today to vote. There are many options that we have when we are purchasing products, I don’t understand why we are running into so many options, or so much difficulty, when it comes to voting rights issues in the state of Florida,” Lewis said. “You created these options for us, but yet now you take them away when we are exercising our rights.”

Crist also took aim at the choice, saying that it appears to be based on voter skin color and prejudicial, before calling DeSantis himself a governor who is “anti-democracy” and only concerned about his political future, not the people of Florida and what they need.

“I think he’s only concerned about what’s in the best interest of his political future in the Republican Party, and a presidential nomination in 2024. And that’s as clear as the nose on your face,” Crist said. “He wants to make it harder for his constituents to vote. And it looks like, based on the color of their skin. That’s prejudice, and that’s anti-democracy. It is appalling, just appalling, that’s what I think of it.”

Crist said the governor is abusing his political power and forgetting Florida, and the University of Florida.

“He’s forgotten us, he really has forgotten Floridians, he certainly is forgetting the University of Florida, one of our great universities in our country let alone in our state, and embarrassing them in such a way, to have censorship be the rule of the day at a great university like the University of Florida?” Crist said.

During a question and answer session at the end of the event, Crist addressed the state’s plans to sue the federal government over an order by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration that would require businesses with more than 100 employees to have their workers vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID testing by Jan. 4.

“What are we trying to do here, what is the president trying to achieve? He’s trying to save lives. That’s a pretty admirable goal. And the governor seems to be on the other side of this coin and that’s appalling,” Crist said. “So whatever is at the disposal of the president to have to override governors like Ron DeSantis or Abbot or whoever they may be, he needs to exercise that authority to do it. So I applaud the president, and what he’s doing through OSHA.”

The latest announced lawsuits from DeSantis and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody come amid multiple other vaccine-focused lawsuits from military personnel, Florida’s government and other states over what they call unconstitutional mandates over personal health.

State officials point to continued drops in new COVID-19 cases as a sign that the pandemic may finally be receding, but Crist said the toll that Florida has paid during the pandemic is too high. He said DeSantis is complicit in the cost of the virus paid by Floridian families.

“You know, we’ve lost 60,000 of our fellow Floridians. That’s more than the Americans we lost in the Vietnam War. And we’re one state. When you put these things in perspective and you kind of sit back and pause and take a breath and you realize what’s happened to Florida, throughout the summer we were number one in infections, we were number one in hospitalizations, sadly we were number one in death,” Crist said. “Whenever there’s a spike, we’re at the top, and that’s not a good place to be and the governor is complicit in those rankings for the state of Florida, we need a change.”