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Supreme Court Strikes Down Government's Anti-Prostitution Mandate for AIDS Organizations

By David Artavia

In a 6—2 decision handed down Thursday, the Supreme Court found unconstitutional a policy that required public health groups fighting HIV and AIDS, among other conditions, to never “promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking” if those groups wanted to recieve federal funds.

The Court ruled that the policy violates freedom of speech under the First Amendment for citizens to hold their own views and speak freely on public health issues. The policy would have required public health organizations to formally adopt a policy opposing prostitution and sex work in order to access federal funds. Public health advocates sucessfully argued that the provision would restrict their organizations from interacting with key populations in the fight against AIDS, and leave the organizations in fear of losing often-vital federal funding for presenting a sincerely held belief on a particular issue.

Since 2003, Congress has authorized the appropriation of billions of dollars in funding to these organizations. The policy was written under the U.S. Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act — also known as "The Leadership Act."

The policy would have made it mandatory for any public health organization — including those that are privately funded but which recieve some federal funds — to wholly adopt the government’s views against prostitution on an organization-wide level. Private grantees would be prohibited from saying or doing anything that the government deemed “inconsistent” to the Leadership Act’s policy.

The Supreme Court's decision confirms a 2011 ruling from the Second Circuit's Court of Appeals, which found that the requirements in the Act violated constitutional rights and was impermissibly viewpoint-based, because it mandated a specific position on a social issue.

"Compelling speech as a condition of receiving a government benefit," the second circuit wrote in 2011, "cannot be squared with the First Amendment."

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