22 April 2013

US Supreme Court Case Determines First Amendment Rights of NGOs

Free speech and global health advocates will see their causes converge today at the US Supreme Court.

The case – Alliance for Open Society International vs. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – is a challenge made by a number of aid organizations to USAID’s required anti-prostitution pledge.

The anti-prostitution pledge is part of the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was launched in 2003 by President George W. Bush. It stipulates that not only are international organizations that receive PEPFAR funds prohibited from supporting prostitutes, they must also pledge their opposition to prostitution and sex trafficking.

Opponents say the rule violates first amendment rights and undermines efforts aimed at improving safety within the sex industry. Proponents say it’s needed if we are to make progress against human trafficking and exploitation of women.

“The split is about whether you support the sex industry,” said Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, to Reuters.

Mie Lewis argued in the ACLU blog, “[T]he Constitution forbids the government from engaging in such moral compulsion. The First Amendment is, at its core, a shield against government intrusions into belief.”

Opponents of the rule argue that it is not a matter of explicit support for the sex industry and trafficking. They point to the unintended consequences that is now backed up by recent research. A research article in the Journal of the International AIDS Society took a look at how organizations reacted.

It found that organizations changed or retreated on HIV programs that targeted sex workers. Given that combating stigma is one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of HIV, the change in policy by organizations contributes to continued stigmatization against certain groups.

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