Can Florida Ban Chinese Academics from University Employment?

A statement on the lawsuit challenging Florida’s Foreign Influence Bill

National Association of Scholars

On March 25, 2024, a group of Chinese academics and students filed a lawsuit against Florida higher education officials. In the lawsuit, they challenge SB 846, a recently passed Florida bill intended to mitigate foreign influence in universities. The plaintiffs allege that the statute violates federal anti-discrimination law by requiring Florida universities to discriminate against students and scholars based on national origin, among other issues.

While the National Association of Scholars (NAS) supports the intention of the Florida legislature to address malign foreign influence at American universities, we believe Florida lawmakers failed to sufficiently narrow the restrictions codified in the bill to avoid this type of legal scrutiny. A more precise and narrower version of the bill could have retained the vast majority of its protections while reducing its legal vulnerability.

Florida legislators passed SB 846: Agreements of Educational Entities with Foreign Entities in 2023 to address foreign influence in American universities. Among other provisions, the bill prohibits state universities from participating in agreements with entities in seven “countries of concern,” which include China, Iran, and Venezuela, unless these universities receive permission from the Florida Board of Governors. The restriction applies to foreign universities and “foreign principals.”

One part of the definition of “foreign principal” is troublesome. It includes “any person who is domiciled in a foreign country of concern and is not a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States.” Though one’s current country of residence is not the same as national origin, it is a reliable proxy. And since “agreements” include those required for academic employment, the lawsuit claims the bill imposes unlawful restrictions on employment of certain foreign students based on national origin.

While we do not endorse the lawsuit or the arguments made therein, we find that the wording of the bill makes it unnecessarily vulnerable to this type of legal scrutiny. We support the bill’s increased oversight on agreements that do not pertain to employment or student enrollment. We believe, however, that most of the security benefits of restricting international student enrollment could be achieved by only imposing restrictions on international students who are funded by their governments.

Foreign governments who fund international students often subject them to unreasonable restrictions on speech and behavior, which limits students from fully participating in the academic environment on campus. This is particularly true for authoritarian governments such as Saudi Arabia and China. Foreign students funded by authoritarian governments are much more likely to pose national security risks. These governments can coerce students into making certain decisions by threatening to revoke funding.

By narrowing the restrictions to such students, Florida legislators would avoid conflict with federal anti-discrimination law. To deny admission or employment to a foreign national who is receiving funds from an authoritarian government does not represent a proxy for national origin. Many students from China, for instance, are self-funded. Additionally, it would keep foreign students who are likely independent from their governments enrolled or available for admission. These students may even take advantage of the freedom American college campuses offer to express dissent against their authoritarian governments.

We applaud the efforts of Florida lawmakers to address malign foreign influence on college campuses and the accompanying national security risks. But lawmakers must be narrow and precise when imposing restrictions on dealings with foreign entities, both to avoid legal scrutiny and to make sure that the costs of restricting foreign influence do not exceed the benefits.

Photo by Sharkshock on Adobe Stock

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