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No travel to 'terrorist' countries for Florida state universities: court

A challenge to a 2006 law banning state university-funded travel to countries the US deems sponsors of terrorism was struck down Tuesday. Florida-based international scholars say the decision will disrupt studies.

By Staff writer / September 1, 2010


Florida-based international scholars are reacting with disappointment to a federal appeals court ruling that reinstates a ban on state university funding for travel to “terrorist” countries, including Cuba.

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The decision greatly complicates the funding of a range of Florida-based research projects focusing on Cuba and other countries. Analysts say it could undercut existing research efforts, encourage top scholars to leave Florida, and deter others from studying or working at the state’s public universities.

A three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that a 2006 state law does not conflict with federal statutes and can be fully implemented.

Under Florida’s Travel Act, no money that flows through a state university – including grants from private foundations – may be used to organize, direct, or coordinate any activities involving travel to a terrorist state.

The state law defines "terrorist state" as any country designated by the US State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism. Four countries are currently on the list: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.

At the time it was passed, the Travel Act was viewed as an attempt by Florida’s conservative legislature to further tighten the US boycott of Cuba. It was also seen by some analysts as an effort to shut down the Cuban Research Institute at Miami’s Florida International University.

Although it is a state law, it relies on a federal government determination of terrorist states to set the scope of the academic travel funding ban.

A group of Florida-based scholars challenged the legality of the new measure, arguing in federal court that it must be preempted by federal laws and policies that allow scholars to travel to countries such as Cuba. They said the state’s restrictive approach to scholarly travel conflicts with the federal government’s more permissive approach.

The federal judge agreed with the scholars that Florida could not control the use of private foundation grant money to fund such trips, but the judge upheld the restrictions on use of Florida money for academic travel.

On Tuesday, the appeals court reversed the federal judge, ruling that Florida was within its authority to restrict all funding flowing through the state university system.

"This is a very unfortunate ruling. I am terribly saddened by it,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which is litigating the case on behalf of the scholars. Simon said they are considering further review.

“I hope this is the last gasp of South Florida anti-Castro politics,” he said of the state’s Travel Act. “This is a dated political tactic.”

The appeals court said the state law’s impact on federal law and foreign policy was “too indirect, minor, incidental, and peripheral to trigger” federal preemption of the state law.