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

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.

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.

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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.

“No federal statute or regulation expressly requires states to pay for foreign travel for state university employees,” the decision says. “No federal law says states cannot differentiate among foreign nations when it comes to spending for academic travel.”

Word of the decision spread quickly among Florida-based scholars.

“The implications are really quite devastating,” says Carmen Diana Deere of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. “It means that scholars in Florida cannot use grant funding or federal funding to carry out research in Cuba. It also means people’s research programs will be undermined.”

She said that Florida-based scholars could still receive a federal license to travel to Cuba for research, but they would have to use their own funds to pay for it.

“It is really sad,” said Noel Smith of the Institute for Research in Art at Tampa’s University of South Florida. She said the ruling puts an end to a series of planned exchange programs between the institute and Cuba.

The Cuban Museum of Fine Arts had invited her to organize an exhibition in Cuba. And she was planning a 10-week program for American students to study in Cuba next summer. Both of those programs will now be canceled, she said.

Last week, the institute opened a show by Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa. It will run through December 11. Since the show is already paid for, it won’t be canceled. But there may not be any opportunities for similar exchanges in the future, Smith said.

Smith said preventing scholars from traveling and studying is counter-productive for Florida and the US. “The more the people of Cuba get to know us and the more we know Cubans, the better the future is going to be,” she said.

The ban doesn’t just disrupt the research of Cuban scholars.

Houman Sadri, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, has just returned from a research trip to Iran. Now he’s worried about how he’ll pay for his next trip.

He says the restriction is counter to America’s interest in knowing all it can about places like Iran and organizations like Al-Qaeda.

"My area of specialization is revolutionary states,” he said. “With this law I cannot use state funds for research in Iran, Libya, and Cuba – basically all the countries I study.”

Professor Sadri added, “This is my life.”

One possible solution for researchers is suggested in the appeals court ruling itself. The judges wrote in a footnote on page seven of the 12-page decision that there are no legal impediments to private research foundations finding a new way to deliver funding to scholars that bypasses the Florida state university system.

“Although grantors may need to modify their grant disbursement and management procedures to work around the Act, the grantors are free to do so; the state is exerting no coercive pressure – economic or otherwise – on the grantors to discourage them from doing so,” the court said in Footnote 9.

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