|State sued over Cuba-travel ban |
Miami Herald- Oscar Corral
| June 14th, 2006 - The recently passed Florida law that essentially bans state academic travel to Cuba promised to escalate into a constitutional battle when Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law last month.|
On Tuesday, the legal war began.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing several professors from state universities, filed a lawsuit against Florida officials in federal court, claiming the travel ban is unconstitutional. The group also demands a temporary injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the case is in court.
''This act is terribly misdirected,'' Randall Marshall, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, said of the new law. ``This is unconstitutional, and we hope to have this law struck down very shortly.''
The issue at hand is a state bill Bush signed into law in May -- sponsored by state Rep. David Rivera of Miami -- that prohibits state universities from using any money or resources to promote, plan, administer or fund travel to Cuba. That means that any support services, such as help from secretaries, computers or fax machines at state universities can't be devoted to Cuba travel. The law's critics say it essentially makes it impossible for professors and researchers to travel to Cuba, even using donations from private organizations.
The law also prohibits private universities from using state money to fund travel to Cuba.
The bill has put some prominent Cuban-American academics at odds with Cuban-American state lawmakers who want to maintain a hard line against the government of Fidel Castro.
''This is nothing but an attempt by Rep. David Rivera to get some political mileage with his constituents,'' said Florida International University Professor Lisandro Perez, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. ``We consider this a blow to academic freedom.''
Rivera said in an interview Tuesday that he believes the lawsuit will fail to overturn the law.
''The Florida Constitution clearly delegates spending authority to the Legislature,'' Rivera said. ``My bill doesn't prevent anyone from traveling to a terrorist nation. Only the federal government can do that. My bill only says that taxpayer resources cannot be utilized to promote travel to terrorist nations.''
The new law prohibits spending state money on any aspect of organizing a trip to any of the five nations on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
Other plaintiffs named in the suit include the faculty senate of FIU; Jose Alvarez, professor emeritus at the University of Florida; Carmen Diana Deere, director and professor at the University of Florida's Center for Latin American Studies; Houman Sadri, associate professor at the University of Central Florida; and Noel Smith, curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art at the University of South Florida.
A major Washington law firm, Alston & Bird, will help the plaintiffs litigate the case at no charge.
''The purpose of doing research is not to advocate or promote other countries but to collect information and bring it back to the United States for publishing,'' said Leonard Bliss, vice chairman of the FIU faculty senate.
The academics worry that the travel ban will discourage top students who have an interest in studying Cuba or other countries on the list from remaining at Florida schools.
LOSS OF STUDENTS
''We are worried about the potential loss of many students,'' Alvarez said.
Ironically, Florida State University announced Tuesday that one of its students who received a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship this year, Joana Carlson, wants to study the Chinese and Cuban revolutions during the Cold War. Carlson, a doctoral student in history, will travel to China to conduct research. Under Rivera's law, she would not be allowed to go to Cuba using any university help.
Marshall said the notion that academic travel to Cuba helps bolster the island's communist government is ``nonsense.''
Rivera, who has sponsored a number of Cuba-crackdown bills, seized upon the January arrests of two FIU staffers for allegedly being unregistered agents of the Cuban government to catapult his bill through the Legislature. He has said that he doesn't believe any legitimate academic research can be done in a totalitarian state.
The governor said he was not surprised that the ACLU filed suit against the bill.
''The courts will sort it out,'' Bush said. ``I think it's good policy; if the courts decide otherwise, we'll yield.''
Miami Herald staff writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.
Link to Story: http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/local/14812674.htm
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