Common sense practices and constitutional principles don’t always coincide. But the U.S. Supreme Court got it right on both counts last week. In a 6-2 ruling, it declared that the U.S. government cannot force U.S. nonprofits fighting AIDS overseas to adopt its views on prostitution as a condition for receiving federal funds.
A 2003 law required the federal government, which has distributed billions of dollars to private international groups combating HIV, to explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. Such a law, the Supreme Court rightly ruled, violates the organizations’ free-speech rights.
To be sure, the constitutional issues weren’t clear-cut, because the U.S. government is not required to give the money and the anti-AIDS groups aren’t forced to take it.
But the law barring organizations receiving Leadership Act funds to have an explicit policy opposing prostitution goes far beyond the reasonable requirement to not use federal funds to promote prostitution.
Some organizations preferred to remain neutral on U.S. policies opposing prostitution; four of them, including the Global Health Council and The Alliance for Open Society International, filed a lawsuit.
In writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., argued, properly, that the conditions posed an unconstitutional burden because they constrained the groups from expressing a contrary view — even in private speech or when spending their own money — outside the operations and administration of the U.S.-funded programs. Such outside activities include conferences and publications.
The U.S. mandates were not only bad law, but also counterproductive policy. Organizations argued that the requirement would undermine their ability to work with those involved in prostitution, including efforts to reach those in brothels, where HIV is rampant. A loyalty oath against one of the groups most at-risk of AIDS undermines efforts to fight a disease that has killed tens of millions of people.
“Public health groups cannot tell sex workers that we oppose them, yet expect them to be partners in preventing HIV,” said Marine Buissonniere, the director of the Open Society Public Health Program, one of the groups challenging the conditions.
In properly ruling on the constitutionality of the U.S. law, the Supreme Court scrapped a policy that impeded the efforts of international groups fighting AIDS.