NEW YORK - The United States cannot force partners in its international fight against AIDS to denounce prostitution as a condition of getting funding, a federal appeals court said yesterday, citing the First Amendment.
The 2-to-1 ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision in favor of four health organizations, including Pathfinder International of Watertown.
The groups had sued the government in 2005, saying their constitutional rights were violated by a provision of the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003.
“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.’’
The rule, to have been enforced by three government agencies, went well beyond what the Supreme Court and the Second Circuit have upheld as permissible conditions on the receipt of government funds, the court said.
The government had required organizations seeking funding to publicly announce they oppose prostitution and sex trafficking.
The court said the provision compels organizations “to espouse the government’s viewpoint.’’