Free Speech curtailed at Florida's universities and community colleges
On May 30, 2006, governor Bush signed into law the SB 2434 bill which, effective July 1st, forbids the use of state money for administering, planning, organizing, or executing travel to the "terrorist states" identified as such by the U.S. State Department. The countries affected include Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The law is usually referred to as the "Travel to Terrorist States" law. For short here it will be referred to as the "Travel Act."
Proponents of the Travel Act allege that a married couple employed at FIU (Florida International University in Miami) passed on information to the Cuban government regarding anti-Castro activities in the United States. The couple has been indicted by the Department of Justice. The couple's lawyer told reporters that they are not guilty. (See http://www.insidehighered.com/news/woo6/01/10fiu.) Regardless of how this case evolves, the incident is insufficient to justify barring all state university and community college travel to Cuba and expanding the academic travel ban to other countries.
There are many problems with the Travel Act. This discussion is limited to a few points regarding Cuba. But first let's clarify that travel to Cuba and within Cuba is already highly restricted as the result of the Executive Order set forth by President George W. Bush effective June 30, 2004. At that time, a few months prior to the November 2004 elections, the president unilaterally intervened to forbid travel to Cuba in several important categories. With respect to Cuban Americans traveling to visit their families in the island, the U.S. government arbitrarily reissued the definition of "family" to mean that no uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, or cousins could count as "family." (That's from the proponents of "family values"!) Moreover, even in cases of parents visiting their children or the converse, it imposed two new restrictions: such travel could only take place by special permission (case-by-case) of the U.S. Treasury Department, and no one could apply for permission until three years had elapsed from their previous trip to the island. No exceptions for humanitarian cases -- the sick, the dying, or the disabled -- are admissible.
The same Executive Order curtailed academic travel to Cuba significantly. Travel to academic conferences organized by Cubans was prohibited unless approved by a Treasury Department "special license" (again, case-by-case). Study-abroad trips to Cuba were restricted to those lasting at least ten weeks, making it impossible (schedule-wise) for most students to travel. However, highly specialized research by faculty and students was licensed under the category of "individual research." As of July 1st, 2006, the Florida Travel Act bars Florida professors and students from pursuing study in Cuba in accordance with these highly restricted federal guidelines.
How does the Florida Travel Act work? Suppose a faculty member gets a private (non-governmental) foundation grant that allows her to do research in Cuba (that is, with money not connected to the state of Florida or to its tax dollars). Prior to July 1, 2006, this was seen as a positive contribution to the state. But no more. After the Travel Act, the faculty member is no longer able to travel to Cuba using the private grant money. Why? Even though her travel does not involve a penny of Florida tax-payers' money, someone must be able to administer the grant coming into the university, including the transfer of funds to the unit issuing the check to the faculty. The signatories of the Travel Act contend that since the office staff is being paid a salary by the university, under no circumstances can the staff person transfer an item from one budget line to another, because Floridians don't want to pay for the ten minutes (or whatever) of the staff person's time that it will take to do the paperwork for the travel reimbursement. So really, the law is not about our Florida dollars and cents financing travel to Cuba. There was already a law in Florida prohibiting the use of state money to fund research in Cuba. They did not need to write the Travel Act, since there was already a prohibition in place (unlike in any other state). The Travel Act is rather about making travel to Cuba impossible, if any aspect of the travel is in any way linked to a university activity -- even to the activity of staff who will never set foot in Cuba. Moreover, the law cuts out all student study-abroad in Cuba from Florida, since it prohibits "the use of state or nonstate funds made available to state universities [and community colleges] to implement, organize, direct, coordinate, or administer activities related to or involving travel to a terrorist state" (emphasis added).
What about faculty using their own money to do individual research on the island? Apparently the Travel Act is being interpreted to mean that since you cannot plan or organize your trip during "university time," the faculty cannot travel or even plan their travel during such time as they are assigned to any university work, even if their research involves Cuban studies. For many people, the scope of the law affects them the twelve months of the year, while for others it affects them at least nine out of twelve months. The problem is that those nine months are the months that universities are in regular session, and that's when most research conferences are held in Cuba. Just as Gainesville becomes nearly empty of students in mid-July and August, so it is in our island neighbor. In Cuba research cannot be accomplished very well in the heat of July and August, much less "individual" research, which requires far more organization than conference travel.
For most faculty at universities, research is a part of their work assignment. It's a direct violation of academic freedom to pass a law stating that your research can only be conducted in certain countries and not others. The same goes for student study. Once the state starts interfering with curriculum content and delimiting what and where something can be studied, that's what they used to call "totalitarian" during the Cold War. Once professors and students are told to stay put because "the state's citizens" don't want them doing research in so-called terrorist countries, yes, folks, that's a signal that we can't call ourselves a free country (or state). In addition, the federal travel ban applying to mainstream citizens and residents of the U.S. is morally questionable. As former president Jimmy Carter once said, why can't a peanut farmer from Georgia travel to Cuba, if he wishes to do so? The travel ban on the average U.S. citizen deprives all Americans of freedom. Its gravity in terms of curtailing our freedom of movement and thought should take priority over the specific grievances the U.S. government may harbor toward a foreign state. Diplomacy is what's called for to handle such grievances. The Bush administration is accountable for its total failure to use diplomacy as needed here.
In what deluded and paranoid mind-set do citizens need to be, to believe that Florida's "Travel to Terrorist States" law actually prevents terrorism? Is it not, rather, a grave danger to society if professors and students guided their lives as this law intends them to do -- in which case our universities would become close-minded societies enforcing a deluded and paranoid system of education? The healthy and politically responsible thing to do is to expose this extremist law and rally everyone to insist it be repealed. Meanwhile, as of June 13, 2006, the ACLU of Florida has challenged the Florida Travel Act in court. A separate group has sued the U.S. Treasury department over the restrictions on educational travel (www.ECDET.org).
The writer teaches in Florida.
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