FIU students and UF professor sue over bill banning higher ed dealings with ‘countries of concern’

The law is having a chilling effect in academia already, the ACLU said.

A Chinese professor and two Chinese graduate students are suing in federal court to stop a new law that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says unfairly targets Chinese international students and others from working as graduate assistants for academic research projects.

Zhipeng Yin and Zhen Guo, doctoral students from Florida International University, joined University of Florida professor Zhengfei Guan in filing the lawsuit over SB 846 in the U.S. District Court’s Miami Division. 

“This law is unfair, unjustified, and unconstitutional,” said Daniel Tilley, legal director for the Florida chapter of the ACLU. “Everyone in the United States is entitled to equal protection under our laws, including citizens of other countries. The discriminatory policies pushed by the DeSantis administration will not go unchecked.”

The complaint names Florida Department of Education (FDOE) Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues and members of the Board of Governors (BOG).

The FDOE and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Office did not respond to a request for comment. FBOG does not commend on pending litigation, spokeswoman Cassandra Edwards said.

Under SB 846, state universities are banned from “accepting grants from or participating in partnerships or agreements with a college or university based in a foreign country of concern.” Those countries of “concern” are China, Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Russia, and North Korea

The law was passed as lawmakers looked to protect U.S. interests from foreign threats and amid fears of Chinese espionage.

“Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat the Chinese Communist Party,” DeSantis said in a statement when he signed SB 846.

But the broadly written law is having a chilling effect in academia already, the ACLU argued. 

Because of SB 846, the two students’ graduate assistant positions were terminated, which put “their academic career in peril” and made them lose tuition waivers, the ACLU said. Guo studies material engineering, while Yin’s focus is in computer science.

Meanwhile, Guan, an agricultural economist, is struggling to recruit top postdoctoral candidates to work on his research projects at UF.

“SB 846’s negative impact on Plaintiff Guan is particularly unfortunate because a large part of his current research focuses on the economics of citrus disease management to protect citrus, Florida’s most important agricultural sector, from a spreading citrus disease that poses a survival threat to the industry,” the lawsuit said.

ACLU is representing the students along with the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance, and Perkins Coie LLP, in coordination with the Chinese American Scholar Forum

“SB 846 will codify discrimination against people of Asian descent in violation of the Constitution,” the ACLU said.

“Gov. DeSantis has argued that this law is necessary to protect Florida from the Chinese Communist Party and its activities. But this misguided rationale unfairly equates Chinese students with the actions of their government, and there is no evidence of national security harm resulting from international students from China studying in Florida.”

The ACLU has won victories blocking the “Stop WOKE Act,” a 2022 law that banned any kind of instruction or training that makes people feel uncomfortable or guilty because of race, gender or national origin.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .

One comment

  • My Take

    March 29, 2024 at 12:03 pm

    Taliban Afghanistan and a “mad bomber” colonialist state are OK one notes.

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