By JACK STRIPLING
Sun staff writer
June 14. 2006 6:01AM
Two University of Florida professors are plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that challenges the constitutionality of state restrictions on travel to Cuba.
The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, comes in response to newly-passed legislation that prohibits the use of university money for travel to Cuba. The same ban applies to any nation labeled a "terrorist" state by the U.S. State Department, which now includes North Korea, Sudan, Syria, Iran and Libya in addition to Cuba.
Carmen Diana Deere, director and professor for UF's Center for Latin American Studies, and José Alvarez, UF professor emeritus, are among six faculty members in the state to join the suit. Two graduate students, including one from UF, are also plaintiffs.
"How are we going to recruit Latin Americans, knowing that in the state the Legislature can limit what you do research on?" Deere said. "It's appalling."
Federal restrictions for travel to Cuba already exist, but faculty conducting research that is likely to be published can legally visit the country in most cases under a federal license. Deere said she was particularly concerned, however, that Florida's new law would prevent UF from getting the specific federal licensure required to send graduate students to Cuba for research.
Some state faculty, including Deere, argue that limiting travel to Cuba will inhibit important efforts to understand the economy and agriculture of Florida's communist neighbor.
Supporters of the bill, however, say that faculty travel to Cuba or the other prohibited states is tantamount to sending taxpayer money to terrorist nations.
The ACLU suit alleges that the newly approved "travel act," spearheaded by Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami in the spring legislative session, exceeds federal laws that relate to foreign relations and violates the U.S. Constitution. Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law May 30.
Howard Simon, executive director for the ACLU of Florida, condemned the legislation in a press release issued Tuesday.
"The primary effect of this legislation is to deny Americans information about other parts of the world," he said. "Crude censorship like this only serves to keep Americans uninformed about climate changes that may affect our economy, the understanding of diseases necessary to protect our health, and information about political and economic developments that may be vital for our national security."
Listed as defendants in the case are state Education Commissioner John Winn, members of the state Board of Education and Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.
The plaintiffs include professors from FIU, the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and University of South Florida. Most are involved with Cuba research, with one concentrating on Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.