U.S. Supreme Court upholds free speech rights for CSOs

24 June 2013

On June 20, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a USAID regulation that required organizations to adopt the government’s anti-prostitution stance in order to receive funds to combat the worldwide spread of HIV/AIDS. The Court fortified the autonomy of civil society organizations by holding that the government cannot use a federal funding program to compel adherence to governmental policy.

The regulation was challenged by the Alliance for Open Society International and Pathfinder International. Both organizations expressed concern “that adopting a policy explicitly opposing prostitution may alienate certain host governments … and may diminish the effectiveness of some of their programs by making it more difficult to work with prostitutes in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” The organizations also expressed concern that the regulation “may require them to censor their privately funded discussions in publications, at conferences, and in other forums about how best to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes.”

The Supreme Court focused its opinion on the free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The Court stated, “At the heart of the First Amendment lies the principle that each person should decide for himself or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence.” As the government “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected . . . freedom of speech,” the Court went on to reason that conditioning the receipt of USAID funds on allegiance to the government’s anti-prostitution policy was unconstitutional.

Read the full text of the Court’s decision in Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International.