Ban of academic travel to Cuba may face legal review

lclark@MiamiHerald.comMay 17, 2011 

WASHINGTON -- A controversial Florida law that restricts state colleges and universities from traveling to Cuba and other “terrorist states” could be headed before the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

The high court on Monday invited the Obama administration to file a brief outlining the United States’ stance on the 2006 law, which bars public schools and universities in Florida from using state money -- or tapping into their budgets -- for travel to countries considered by the federal government to be “sponsors of terrorism.’’ The countries include Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the faculty at the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida International University in March had asked the high court to review the law.

The state law was declared unconstitutional in 2008 by U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz in Miami, but it was upheld last September by a federal appeals court in Atlanta.

There was no word yet Monday on whether the U.S. Solicitor General, who would represent the Obama administration, would file in the case, but the ACLU said it was pleased the high court was “taking this seriously.

“By allowing Florida to prevent even privately-funded research on Cuba or any government, we are permitting states to maintain their own foreign policies,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

The ACLU and the universities in March had asked the high court to step in, saying the law makes Florida “the only state in the country with its own foreign policy which runs over, above and contrary to the foreign policy of the United States.”

But the Florida Attorney General, in a filing last month, told the U.S. Supreme Court that the law doesn’t prohibit travel and that the appeals court found that Florida’s “traditional state interest in managing its own spending and the scope of its academic programs was sufficient to overcome some indistinct desire on the part of the executive branch or Congress to encourage generally academic travel.”

Miami Republican Rep. David Rivera, who pushed the measure as a state lawmaker, hailed the appeals court decision at the time as helping state lawmakers “ensure that public resources and taxpayers’ dollars are not utilized to subsidize travel to terrorist countries such as the Castro regime.’’

Rivera could not be reached for comment late Monday.

The court’s decision to ask the Obama administration to weigh in comes as the White House looks to expand travel to Cuba, though Florida’s Attorney General noted that the administration was invited to file a brief in the appeals court, but did not.

The Obama administration in January eased restrictions on scholarly travel to Cuba in an effort to improve relations with Cubans.

But academics in Florida say state law puts Florida schools at a disadvantage and has effected a number of long-range plans, including a Cuban studies program on historical archives and documents of the 19th and 20th centuries at the University of Florida, as well as academic exchanges that had been agreed to with the University of Havana.

The ACLU has predicted that if the court takes up the case, oral arguments would likely take place this fall.

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