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Florida law restricting Chinese in academia challenged

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-03-26 10:58

Two students and a professor filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Florida law SB 846, which prohibits the state's public colleges and universities from partnering with entities in seven "countries of concern", as well as offering academic employment to international students domiciled in those countries.

The seven "countries of concern" are China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. The law took effect in July 2023.

Court documents show that the plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from the ACLU Foundation of Florida, the Chinese American Legal Defense Alliance, and Perkins Coie LLP.

The listed plaintiffs include Manny Diaz, commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, as well as chancellors and members of the State University System of Florida Board of Governors.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Miami, seeks a judgment that SB 846 be declared unlawful because it violates the US Constitution and federal doctrines. The suit also seeks an injunction to stop the enforcement of SB 846.

The legal challenge said that "SB 846 will most heavily impact Chinese nonimmigrants given that they comprise the vast majority of international students and professors eligible for actual or prospective academic employment in Florida public universities and colleges".

It has been reported that 40 percent of the University of Florida's international graduate student body came from China, and they are deemed "best graduate students" by some professors in the US.

Plaintiff Zhipeng Yin came to the US in 2021 and studied in New York for about 2 1/2 years before accepting a Florida International University (FIU) offer to enroll in its computer science doctoral program with a graduate teaching assistantship that was set to begin in December 2023.

The offer led Yin to sign a 13-month lease with monthly rent of $2,600, as well as incurring a moving expense of more than $15,000.

However, FIU informed Yin in January that his teaching-assistantship offer and tuition waiver were deferred due to the new SB 846 process. He is paying the full tuition fee.

Similarly, under SB 846, plaintiff Zhen Guo lost his teaching-assistant position, which included an annual stipend of $27,510, a tuition waiver, and access to the FIU-sponsored graduate assistant health insurance program, which was set to start in December last year. He's also paying full tuition.

SB 846 would cost both plaintiffs about $40,000 each per academic year, the lawsuit said. Besides financial losses, the plaintiffs also are deprived of opportunities to build a network of peers and mentors and limit exposure to innovative research, scholarly discourse and publication opportunities.

The extra financial burden is also interrupting Yin's plan of academic training. He is considering moving from Florida, but he would face a penalty from his rental lease as well as moving expenses.

The third plaintiff, Zhengfei Guan, is a well-published, award-winning, tenured associate professor at the University of Florida. Guan is a permanent resident of the United States. He has received more than $3 million in research grants and has collaborated on grants totaling over $30 million.

The lawsuit said that SB 846 has injured Guan because it has severely affected his ability to recruit and hire the best postdoctoral candidates.

The lawsuit also seeks judgment that both Yin and Guo should be considered domiciled in Florida because they are not physically residing in China but Florida.

Another Florida law that restricts Chinese from buying real property also has been challenged in court.

The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that the land law SB 264 is likely superseded by federal law and blocked its enforcement. The argument for this case is scheduled in April.


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