The Supreme Court handed down an important First Amendment decision on June 20, 2013, that has attracted relatively little attention thus far. The decision is Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society (PDF), 133 S. Ct. — (2013), No. 12-10 (Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented; Justice Kagan recused herself).
In order to understand it, I’d like to provide the First Amendment background.
First Amendment Background
It is black letter First Amendment law that, with few exceptions, government cannot directly regulate the speech of its citizens because of disagreement with the viewpoint expressed. Ideally, government should be neutral when it comes to the content of speech. See my post of January 19, 2010, where I discuss the three dominant rationales of the First Amendment.
It is also black letter First Amendment law that government cannot compel its citizens to express political or other views. West Virginia Bd. of Education v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624 (1943); Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U. S. 705 (1977).
Government Funding and Unconstitutional Conditions
What happens, however, where government does not do either of these directly but instead conditions the receipt of government funds in ways that affect the content of the recipient’s speech? To what extent should government be permitted to buy a citizen’s First Amendment (and other) rights by exercising the power of the purse? This implicates what is known as the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions.
Let me set the stage for Agency for International Development with several examples from earlier Supreme Court cases.
(1) Suppose the federal government provides funds that may only be used by recipient organizations to promote childbirth, not abortion.
According to the Supreme Court in Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U. S. 173 (1991), this was a constitutional condition—it did not violate the First Amendment—because the government was entitled to insure that its funds were used by recipients for their intended purpose, the promotion of childbirth. In addition, nothing prevented the recipient from obtaining funding from other private sources that could be used for abortion counseling, so long as the two activities, childbirth and abortion counseling, were kept separate.
(2) Suppose the federal government not only provides funds for a particular purpose, say, paying for legal services for indigents, but also imposes a condition on the recipient that it not take a particular position in the course of providing those legal services, even if taking a particular position in the course of providing legal services is separately funded by private sources.
Notice how this condition goes beyond the use of the funds themselves, thereby making it more suspect under the First Amendment.
According to the Supreme Court in Legal Services Corp. v. Velasquez, 531 U.S. 533 (2001), this condition on funding violated the First Amendment. It was an unconstitutional condition.
The Agency for International Development Case
Finally, consider the Agency for International Development case. Here the United States, as part of a program to eliminate HIV/AIDS worldwide, funded various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating around the world to participate in this program. However, two conditions on receiving funding were imposed. The first condition posed no First Amendment problem under Rust: no funds could be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution and sex trafficking.
However, the second condition did present a problem: no funds could be used by any recipient organization that did not have a policy expressly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.
Various recipient organizations challenged the second condition under the First Amendment because, if they complied with it, they would, first, alienate certain host governments and, second, they would have to censor privately funded discussions in publications, conferences and other forums.
In an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court held this second condition unconstitutional. It went well beyond the funding condition upheld in Rust. And it even went beyond the funding condition struck down in Legal Services Corporation. It did not just prohibit recipients from expressing a position with which the federal government disagreed, but it required them affirmatively to take the government’s position as their own. This requirement conflicted with the First Amendment’s prohibition against compelled speech.
As Chief Justice Roberts put the matter, “It requires them to pledge allegiance to the Government’s policy of eradicating prostitution.”
In context, then, this was not a difficult First Amendment case, but it was an important one.