ACLU challenges law limiting college-paid trips

The law bans the use of public funds for travel to terrorist states, which the group claims is a First Amendment violation.

Published June 14, 2006

MIAMI - The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a new Florida law that bans the use of public university funds to pay for travel to Cuba and other nations labeled terrorist states by the U.S. government.

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday on behalf of professors from several universities contends that the law violates their First Amendment rights and impinges on the federal government's powers to regulate foreign commerce.

Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, said the measure signed into law May 30 by Gov. Jeb Bush amounts to "crude censorship" that will prevent greater understanding between nations and hamper scientific research into such things as climate change and disease.

"The primary effect of this legislation is to deny Americans information about other parts of the world," Simon said.

The law prohibits professors, students and researchers from using money administered by a public university or college - federal or state funds and even private foundation grants - to travel to any country listed as a terrorist state by the U.S. State Department. Besides Cuba, the list includes Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Private universities and colleges in Florida also are prohibited from using state funds for travel to those countries.

The measure was pushed through the Legislature after a Florida International University psychology professor, Carlos Alvarez, and his wife, Elsa, a social work coordinator at FIU, were indicted in January on charges of acting as illegal agents of the Cuban government.

Court documents say the Alvarezes made several trips to Cuba to meet with that country's intelligence service, using their FIU status as cover. Prosecutors said they also explored whether some FIU students might be suitable candidates to provide intelligence for Cuba.

The government alleges that the Alvarezes spied for decades on Miami's Cuban-American exile community.

The Alvarezes have pleaded not guilty.

Asked Tuesday in Tallahassee about the ACLU lawsuit, Bush defended the law.

"I think it's good policy. If the courts decide otherwise, we'll yield," the governor said.

State Education Commissioner John Winn, members of the state Board of Education and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher are listed as defendants in the case.

The plaintiffs include professors from FIU and the universities of Florida, Central Florida and South Florida. Most are involved with Cuba research, with one concentrating on Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.