Gov’t must allow NGOs to operate freely

This Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society. This case involves the Leadership Act, which was passed by Congress in 2003 to allocate billions of dollars toward the eradication of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases. While this legislation marked a decisive step in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, it also required organizations that receive U.S. government funding to include an explicit message against prostitution in their missions.

The Alliance for Open Society International, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, conducts global education and health campaigns aimed at eradicating HIV/AIDS. They operate in multiple countries, tailoring their approach to local cultures. Due to the Leadership Act, the NGO would have to either give up government funding or change its official mission due to its neutrality regarding prostitution. The reduced income would deal a big blow to the efficacy and reach of the nonprofit organization’s campaigns.

At the court hearing on Monday, the justices seemed divided over the issue, asking challenging questions of both sides. The government argued that it does not force any organization to change its message — it simply uses the inclusion of an anti-prostitution clause as a factor when deciding with whom to work. Congress adamantly espouses the view that eliminating prostitution presents the best method of handling HIV/AIDS, which precludes them from funding an organization that thinks and acts otherwise.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the government, it would allow Congress to compel an organization to follow the government’s desired opinion.

The organization has already agreed not to use U.S. government funds for activities related to prostitution. Openly opposing prostitution would severely cripple the organization’s reach by alienating those most at risk from HIV/AIDS and complicating their relationship to countries that have a different stance on prostitution.

In the 1991 Rust v. Sullivan case, the Supreme Court established that Congress, under the pretense of public interest, could create federal programs with set goals and selectively fund organizations that pursue those aims. This avoids discriminating between differing viewpoints and transgressing the First Amendment.

In the case of AID v. Alliance for Open Society, the government has gone beyond the point of selective funding and seeks to regulate a private organization’s freedom of speech. Both the NGO and the Leadership Act share the same goal of eradicating HIV/AIDS and other diseases but differ on what the best way to achieve that result. Instead of assessing the organization in terms of its effectiveness, the government may deny funding for the NGO due to its neutrality on prostitution. This reveals an underlying stigma in the U.S. Congress against prostitution, which in this case, seems to trump their official goal of fighting HIV/AIDS.

Carlos Estevez is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]