By Mary Ellen Klas
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left intact a controversial Florida law that restricts state colleges and universities from traveling to Cuba and other “terrorist states,” despite indications last year that the court would consider a review.
Amid the flurry of rulings from the high court on Monday was a denial of review of Florida’s “Travel to Terrorist States Act.” The action effectively lets stand a lower court ruling upholding the 2006 law, which bars public schools and universities from using state money for travel to countries such as Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria and other nations considered “sponsors of terrorism.”
The court decision not to hear the case deals a “devastating blow” to Florida universities, said Howard Simon, head of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU challenged the law, along with faculty at Florida International University, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida. Simon predicted the law will lead to an exodus of faculty and research dollars from Florida schools.
“The research is not going to end. It will just be done by universities elsewhere outside of Florida,’’ Simon said. “It will keep us in an enforced state of ignorance.”
U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who sponsored the law when he was in the state Legislature, commended the court’s action, saying it was “a victory for Florida taxpayers” who “do not want their money or publicly funded resources to be utilized for travel to terrorist nations, or to enrich terrorist regimes.” Simon, however, said the premise of the law is flawed, saying the research doesn’t aid the terrorist countries and helps the U.S.
“It’s not a giveaway to Cuba if we study the country’s economy, weather patterns and political conditions,’’ he said. “We benefit by knowing more. We don’t benefit by forced ignorance.”
The law was first ruled unconstitutional in 2008 by U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz, who declared it “an impermissible sanction” that served “as an obstacle to the objectives of the federal government.”
The ruling was appealed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist and former Attorney General Bill McCollum, and the lower court ruling was overturned.
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.”
In March 2011, the ACLU and university professors asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, and the high court asked the U.S. Department of Justice to prepare a brief on the issue. But the justices chose not to call for a hearing on the case, ending the appeal.
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