Despite its awkward name and somewhat technical details, AID v. AOSI provided the Supreme Court with an opportunity to make a very simple point: The federal government can’t force its contractors – whether they’re corporations (as in this case) or individuals – to promote policies that are unrelated to the program for which they receive federal funds. The Court correctly ruled that executing a program to combat HIV/AIDS is unrelated to advocating for or against the legalization of prostitution. One can imagine other instances: Treating drug abuse has little to do with one’s views on drug legalization. Running an adoption agency can be done whether one is pro-choice or pro-life. Missiles can be built regardless of whether the contractor favors a particular foreign policy stance.
As Cato argued in its amicus brief, such “policy requirements” significantly burden political speech, the constitutional protection of which lies at the very heart of the First Amendment. Had the government’s position been accepted, it would eviscerate the “unconstitutional conditions” doctrine, which the Supreme Court has long recognized to prevent the conditioning of generally available federal benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights. The Court has never given Congress carte blanche to give contractors Hobson’s Choices, whether relating to the freedom of speech or other constitutional rights. Today it thus strengthened the principle that Congress’s power to condition funding is limited to ensuring that its funds are used to properly implement the program that Congress wishes to fund, not to compel private organizations to adopt express “policies” that don’t relate to the use of those federal funds.
For more on AID v. AOSI, see my recent op-ed.