The Supreme Court on Thursday, in a surprisingly lopsided decision, ruled that the federal government could not put restrictions on statements made by recipients of funding. The case involves a Bush-era requirement that foreign groups receiving funding to combat AIDS had to take a position opposing prostitution. Lyle Denniston explains the ruling:
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.’s opinion for a six-to-two majority said that the government cannot impose a condition on receipt of government funds in a government program if that forces private groups to publicly express views on an issue that parrots the government’s views but is not what those groups themselves believe or want to say. That, the opinion said, is a form of “leveraging” money to compel unwanted speech, and the First Amendment frowns on that.
The decision leaves no doubt that the government can tell such groups that they cannot use the federal funds they accept to cover the costs of speaking out in contradiction to the government’s views. Such a restriction, the Chief Justice indicated, assures that the funds do not underwrite the contrary views. But when the government seeks to control the recipient’s views on the policy issues, that pushes beyond the program’s limits and violates the First Amendment, the opinion concluded.
Here is the way the Chief Justice put that point: “By requiring recipients to profess a specific belief, the [command of what they can say] goes beyond defining the limits of the federally funded program to defining the recipient.”
It is one thing, the opinion said, for the government to refuse to underwrite opposing policy views by organizations seeking public funds. It is something else, it added, when the government goes beyond and seeks to conscript an organization into being a policy mouthpiece for the government, even if that contradicts its own views.
The ruling was 6-2 with Chief Justice Roberts delivering the opinion of the court. Justice Scalia wrote the dissent, joined by Justice Thomas. Justice Kagan had recused herself from the case.