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Fla. travel ban to Cuba may be challenged in US Supreme Court

When Noel Smith received an email from her friend last week, she did not expect to learn that a lawsuit she filed with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and seven other faculty members from Florida universities in 2006 would be taken this seriously.

Smith, curator of the USF Institute for Research in Art (IRA), received an email from her lawyer a few days later confirming her friend’s find: her case against a travel ban to Cuba may soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2006, then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush enacted Florida Statute 1011.90, which prohibited “state or non-state funds made available to state universities … used to implement, organize, direct, coordinate or administer, or to support the implementation, organization, direction, coordination or administration of, activities related to” travel to Cuba or other countries deemed terrorist states.

Smith said this posed a dire threat to her work.

“It was horrible,” she said. “Just devastating.”

Smith, who had been bringing Cuban residents, artists and scholars to USF’s Graphic studio since 1999, said the program was greatly weakened by this act.

“We really had a vibrant program with Cuba,” she said. “You can imagine with a program like that what happens when you can no longer pay to bring artists from Cuba, or you can no longer pay for yourself to go down there. Or you can no longer conduct telephone calls or write letters there, or anything like that. It’s just an absurd situation, and it’s handicapped the whole program.”

Shortly after the ban was enacted, the ACLU contacted faculty members across the state with research interests invested in Cuba, challenging the state of Florida on multiple constitutional grounds. Smith readily joined as a plaintiff.

Yet, it was when the Obama administration announced its plans to relax tensions and encourage travel with Cuba in January that the plaintiffs clearly felt the state was in constitutional violation, ACLU of Florida communications director Derek Newton said.

On March 11, a petition for a writ of certiorari to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court was filed.

“We have filed because we believe the Florida law is unconstitutional for a number of reasons,” Newton said. “It fails to distinguish between public funds and private funds for legitimate academic research. In essence, it imposes a foreign policy for the state of Florida, which is clearly the sole right of the federal government to set and enact foreign policy.”

Newton said if the case were heard by the court, oral arguments were initially expected in the fall – but the Obama administration has been invited to submit a brief supporting its case, which could potentially push back arguments.

As of Wednesday, the brief from the administration has yet to be filed, according to a spokesperson from the Office of the Solicitor General.

Though Smith is the only plaintiff from USF, she would not be the only one at the University affected by this case.

Rachel May, director of the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, said USF once offered a Cuban studies certificate for graduate students, but that program has been dormant due to the lack of credits available with the possibility of study abroad diminished.

“It’s a big problem because there’s a lot of interest and expertise in things pertaining to Cuba at USF – from marine sciences to literature and history and poetry,” May said. “But nobody can go to Cuba. It means we aren’t getting graduate students interested in doing research about Cuba. You can’t study a place if you can’t go there.”

If the ban is lifted, there is hope the program could be revitalized, she said.

“There are scholars who work on a broad range of issues that don’t supply support for Fidel Castro and the revolution, but there are a lot of people who do work on Cuba, and if the ban were to be lifted, they could continue to pursue their research and academic activities,” May said.

U.S. Rep. David Rivera (R-Miami), a proponent of the ban in 2006, said he does not believe the ban should be lifted even if the case goes to the U.S. Supreme Court and believes Cuba should be treated as a terrorist state.

“Florida’s constitution clearly delegates to the state legislature the authority to determine how taxpayer funds are to be utilized and how they are not to be utilized,” Rivera said in an email statement. “In Florida, the elected representatives of the people – the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Governor – overwhelmingly determined that taxpayer funds and taxpayer resources should not be used to facilitate or subsidize travel to terrorist nations.”

Smith said she only sees futility in upholding the ban.

“I think that the more the Cubans are exposed to Americans and the more Americans are exposed to Cubans, the better the future will be,” she said. “I don’t think anything is served by artificially keeping people apart.”