Public Health and The First Amendment – AID v. Alliance for Open Society

By Wendy Parmet

The Supreme Court’s decision last week to grant cert in AID v. Alliance for Open Society International, demonstrates anew the importance of First Amendment jurisprudence to public health protection. In recent years, it has sometimes seemed as if the First Amendment has become the most significant legal obstacle to effective public health protection through law. In cases such as Lorillard Tobacco, Thompson v. Western States Medical Center (the compounding pharmacy case), and Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc., the Supreme Court has found that First Amendment protections for commercial speech trump public health protection, a view that the D.C. Circuit seemed to endorse when it ruled last summer in R.J. Reynolds that the graphic warning labels required by the Tobacco Control Act violated the First Amendment Rights of cigarette companies.

Yet sometimes the First Amendment helps to advance the cause of public health, particularly by limiting the reach of laws that are designed to restrict an open and informed approach to sexual and reproductive. US AIDS offers one such example. In that case, plaintiff NGOs challenged a provision in the federal Leadership Act, 22 U.S.C. § 7631(f),  that required them to adopt a policy explicitly opposing prostitution in order to receive federal funds available to fight HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis, and malaria.  The plaintiffs argued that the Act constituted an unconstitutional condition and violated their First Amendment rights by compelling them to adopt the government’s viewpoint regarding prostitution. The Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Parker, concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits and granted them a preliminary injunction.

Now the Supreme Court will reconsider the issue. Public health advocates are likely to weigh in and argue for the widest possible protection for their own advocacy.  In doing so, they might want to keep in mind the threat that the First Amendment poses for public health in other contexts, especially in commercial speech cases.  And they will certainly want to think about how they can convince courts to value public health when deciding First Amendment cases. Figuring out how to do that — how to develop a First Amendment jurisprudence that is respectful of public health — just may be the most pressing challenge facing public health lawyers today.

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