WASHINGTON – The government may not require people or groups to “pledge allegiance” to its policies as a condition of obtaining grants, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a broad defense of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.
The 6-2 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts strikes down part of a federal law that requires groups that receive funding to fight AIDS overseas to announce policies “opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”
Since 2003 Congress has appropriated billions of dollars for funding organizations that combat HIV and AIDS.
As a condition of receiving money, the groups must have public policies opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. Several groups that receive funding sued to challenge that requirement on the grounds that it would make it hard for them to work with sex workers who need testing and treatment, and that it would violate the groups’ First Amendment rights.
The case raised the recurring question of whether the government can use its funding power to require grant recipients to follow its rules and policies. In the past, the court has upheld federal laws that required libraries to filter pornography from its computers and that told doctors in subsidized clinics they may not advise patients about abortion.
But in Thursday’s opinion, the chief justice said those decisions involved the government’s refusal to subsidize certain activities. The government may not go further, he said, and “leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the program itself.”
The law requiring groups to declare their opposition to sex trafficking “falls on the unconstitutional side of the line,” he said. “It is about compelling a grant recipient to adopt a particular belief as a condition of funding…. It requires them to pledge allegiance to the government’s policy of eradicating prostitution.”
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.