EDITORIAL: Cutting federal strings

Can the government cancel free speech with cash?

Like a deal with the devil, accepting money from the federal government comes with strings. Whether it be the National Collegiate Athletic Association or the National Endowment for the Arts or organizations in between, accepting taxpayer dollars necessarily means abiding by terms and conditions set by Congress.

Four AIDS-fighting groups are irritated that the federal government asks them to take a pledge against prostitution and sex trafficking as a condition of receiving taxpayer cash. The four plaintiff organizations contend that taking this “anti-prostitution pledge” violates their First Amendment rights to free speech and restricts their abilities to work with other health organizations. The Supreme Court heard their plea last week in the case Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International.

The administration defends the anti-prostitution pledge law, saying it’s reasonable to ask groups that receive anti-AIDS funds to oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. No one is forced to take the government’s pledge — unless they want the government’s money. David Bowker, representing George Soros’ Alliance for Open Society International, argues that Congress courts trouble when it decides whether to fund an organization based on its viewpoint.

Justices have considered similar issues before. In the 1998 case National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, the court upheld a law imposing a decency standards on the award of NEA grants to purported artists and arts organizations. Congress came up with the rules in response to public outrage over government bankrolling trash, like Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photography and Andres Serrano’s “art” of a crucifix submerged in a vial of urine.

The law “neither inherently interferes with First Amendment rights nor violates constitutional vagueness principles,” then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court in the case about Karen Finley, whose “performance art” consisted of posing topless while smeared with chocolate. Since the funding limits were upheld, the NEA has for the most part avoided hot water.

On the other hand, some of the conservative justices raised concerns over what would happen if the principle of letting the federal government tie funding to speech were taken to extremes. With Obamacare, millions of Americans will have no choice but to become “beneficiaries” of federal money, which could then be used to impose restrictions on their speech. “Let’s suppose Congress says that we think that the issue of guns is very germane to public health,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued last week. “Therefore, we will not allow anybody to receive any of these funds directly or indirectly unless that entity or person proclaims agreement with whatever we happen to think at the moment about guns.”

There’s a solution to the problems posed on both left and right. If the Soros-funded AIDS groups find the anti-prostitution pledge unacceptable, they can forgo federal funding and Mr. Soros can finance whatever he, and they, like.

The solution to Justice Alito’s dilemma begins with the government realizing that it’s $16.8 trillion in debt and can no longer afford to subsidize everything it considers a worthy cause. The government must get out of the health care business, the student loan business, the home loan business and every other “service” the federal government provides by crowding out the private sector and leaving Americans with no alternative but to accept the “free” support from the government. That’s the best way of cutting strings that should be cut.

The Washington Times

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