Court Largely Upholds Florida Law That Put Sharp Limits on Academic Travel to Cuba

September 01, 2010

A federal appeals court has upheld a Florida law that restricts students, faculty members, and researchers at the state's public colleges and universities from traveling to Cuba and four other countries that the U.S. government considers terrorist states.

In a ruling issued on Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said Florida could determine how to spend its own funds for education. "A state traditionally has had great control over its spending, especially for education: a local responsibility," the judges wrote.

But the appeals court ruled that the state could not regulate travel financed with private funds, handing the plaintiffs a partial victory.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida had challenged the law in court on behalf of the Faculty Senate at Florida International University, arguing that the statute violated faculty members' First Amendment rights and impinged on the federal government's ability to regulate foreign commerce.

The law, enacted by the state's Legislature in 2006, prevents students, professors, and researchers at public universities and community colleges in Florida from using state or federal funds, or private-foundation grants administered by their institutions, to travel to Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, or Syria. The law also forbade those at private colleges in Florida to use state funds for such travel.

The appeals court agreed with a district-court judge's ruling that professors and students could travel to Cuba if they did not use state or federal money. In fact, nearly all such trips rely on private funds.

But the appellate judges ruled that restricting travel supported by public funds was "not beyond a state's valid powers."

"The states are always faced with valid choices about how best to spend limited resources for education," the judges wrote, noting that lawmakers could consider the academic value of programs and student and faculty safety. "And avoiding potential in-state scandals about entanglement with foreign espionage ... can be legitimately considered too by a state as it decides how to spend its money to finance the travel of its employees."

The law's passage followed the indictment of a Florida International University professor and his wife, also a university employee, on charges of spying for Cuba. The pair later pleaded guilty.