Yesterday a federal appeals court overturned a provision of the 2003 U.S. Global Leadership Act Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which required US groups seeking funding for international HIV/AIDS work to pledge to denounce prostitution. The suit was originally filed by Alliance for Open Society International and Pathfinder International in 2005 after they both adopted policy statement opposing prostitution in order to keep receiving funds.
The court ruled the pledge violated the First Amendment. From the AP:
“Compelling speech as a condition of receiving a government benefit cannot be squared with the First Amendment,” the majority wrote. “The right to communicate freely on such matters of public concern lies at the heart of the First Amendment.”
Further, the appeals court says the provision required organizations, “to espouse the government’s viewpoint.”
The vague pledge made it dangerous for groups to offer any sort of services or support to sex workers without possibly being seen as “supporting prostitution.” So distribution of safer sex supplies, HIV/AIDS testing, any services offered to sex workers meant a potential loss of funding. From Jodi Jacobson at RH Reality Check:
Moreover, programs recognized around the world for their successes in working with marginalized populations such as sex workers and other marginalized populations have been de-funded. The pledge also required health workers to become quasi-law enforcement agents, undoing years of work building trust among vulnerable populations such as street- and brothel-based sex workers in countries like Cambodia, India, Thailand, and Vietnam. Finally, it prevented U.S. organizations receiving either U.S. or private funds from supporting the efforts of sex worker collectives to promote universal condom use, safe sex practices, to defend themselves against police violence and corruption, or to fight to secure their basic human rights.
The same article points out the “prostitution pledge,” as interpreted by the Bush Administration, applied not only to federal funding but private dollars as well, and was sadly continued by the Obama Administration. Further, while this ruling is a partial victory, it only applies to US groups seeking funding but does not lift the pledge from non-US groups. So it’s an important step, but has not stopped government officials from imposing their values on international organizations and causing real harm in sex worker’s lives.
I’ve been thinking about what this ruling might mean for the Global Gag Rule, a policy banning organizations receiving federal funding for international aid work to even speak about abortion, let alone provide the procedure. While the policy is not currently in place, it’s been reinstated by every Republican president since Reagan. Previous attempts to challenge the rule on First Amendment grounds all failed. I wonder if this ruling could set a precedent for US groups if the Global Gag Rule ever comes back, though international groups would probably still be screwed.