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The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a Florida law prohibiting universities from using state funds to pay for faculty traveling to countries designated by the federal government as sponsors of terrorism. Reversing a lower court, a three-judge panel ruled on Aug. 31 that the Florida law did not violate federal powers. At the same time, the court upheld the lower court’s determination that the state could not restrict the use of non-state funds, such as donations, for the same purpose. The court, in a per curiam ruling, found that the law comported with Florida’s right to control its spending on education and that it did not strip the federal government of any authority regarding foreign nations. “The Florida Act’s limitation on state spending is not preempted by federal law or violative of federal foreign affairs power,” the court said in an eight-page decision. The Faculty Senate of Florida International University filed the lawsuit in June 2006 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. It asserted that the state’s Travel Act, signed into law a month earlier by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, violated the U.S. Constitution in a variety of ways. Several of the university’s faculty members had traveled to Cuba to conduct research and another faculty member traveled to Iran for the same reason. Representing the plaintiffs was Alston & Bird partner Paul Brinkman, as coordinating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “I think the court failed to appreciate the significant way in which the Florida Travel Act clashes with federal law and policy,” Brinkman said in an e-mail statement. “Foreign relations is a uniquely federal prerogative that needs to jealously guarded from interference by the states, particularly with respect to countries like Iran and Cuba.” The Florida attorney general’s office, which defended the action, directed questions about the decision to David Rivera, a Republican member of Florida’s House of Representatives who sponsored the bill. He was not immediately available for comment. The Florida law pertains to countries designated by the State Department as state sponsors of terrorism. They are Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. North Korea was on the list at the time the lawsuit was filed but was removed in October 2008. The court noted that from 2001 to 2006, the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University spent $125,511 on direct expenses for travel to Cuba. “We conclude that this travel expenditure, as well as the other financial figures appearing in the record are not big enough to be of serious concern on the world’s stage,” the court said. The 11th Circuit judges issuing the opinion were James Edmondson and Susan Black. Judge Eugene Siler sat by designation from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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