U.S. Supreme Court Doesn’t Understand Human Trafficking as a Public Health Problem

By Steve Mason, Ph.D.

In 2003, the United States government enacted a law that placed two restrictions on private groups receiving federal money to help stem the tide of AIDS around the world.  The first restriction was that funds received could not be used to promote or otherwise advocate for prostitution and sex trafficking.  The second restriction was that groups receiving support had to have a policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.  On June 20, 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down the second restriction on the grounds that it violates the freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment.

I have to admit that I find this decision disappointing on many levels.  The idea that an organization’s freedom of speech is more important than an individual’s freedom over their own body is, frankly, appalling.  Interestingly, most of the coverage I have seen on the decision focuses primarily on prostitution and largely ignores trafficking, as if they can somehow be divorced.  As seen over and over around the world, the two cannot be separated.  This was stated plainly by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in their brief amicus curiae when they pointed out that prostitution quite often “takes the form of sex trafficking” (brief available here: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publications/supreme_court_preview/briefs-v2/12-10_reversal_catw-etal.pdf).  Additionally, the decision places too much emphasis on treating the ‘disease’ (the spread of AIDS) while ignoring a major root cause (sex trafficking and prostitution).

Beyond that, one of the biggest issues I have with the decision is that there are numerous examples throughout America where the freedom of speech is limited for the betterment and protection of domestic and international society.  The obvious example is that one cannot have freedom of speech if your speech is dangerous and false (e.g., the classic example of falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater).  More germane to this situation are examples from the public health sector.  A first example is the requirement that tobacco companies must post warning labels on their products.  The argument can be (and has been made) that this violates the companies’ freedom of speech.  However, the requirement still stands because the gain – educating the population about a very real threat to public health – is a major benefit to society.  A second example is when pharmaceutical companies are required to provide Important Safety Information whenever they discuss the potential benefits of a therapy.  The argument could be made that this violates companies’ freedom of speech, but again this is acceptable because the gain – education of physicians and their patients – is of such great importance.

Coming from these examples, I have a hard time understanding how requiring groups to have a statement opposing prostitution and trafficking violates their freedom of speech in an unacceptable manner. Perhaps the gravity of the situation and the horrid conditions in which sex trafficking victims live is foreign to our Supreme Court justices.  Or it may just be that some of the arguments from the other side were ultimately compelling.  In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts appears to have been swayed by arguments such as those from Marine Buissonniere, director of the Open Society Public Health Program, who said “public health groups cannot tell sex workers that we ‘oppose’ them, yet expect them to be partners in preventing H.I.V.1”  If so, this is unfortunate as Ms. Buissonniere’s statement is not completely accurate; I know people who have worked with prostitutes to provide much needed healthcare while also working to help them escape their situation.

At the very least, we who have freedoms need to be willing to accept limitations on our speech and lifestyle in order to bring basic freedoms to those who have none.  Someone needs to be their voice. The gain – raising awareness of the abuses that exist around prostitution and sex trafficking – is more than worth the loss.

Steve Mason, Ph.D., is the Senior Editor of Biological Sciences of Cancer InCytes Magazine.  The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any company or organization.


1. New York Times. “Justices Say U.S. Cannot Impose Antiprostitution Condition on AIDS Grants” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/us/court-finds-aids-programs-rules-violate-free-speech.html?_r=0. Accessed June 23, 2013.

3 thoughts on “U.S. Supreme Court Doesn’t Understand Human Trafficking as a Public Health Problem”

  1. The answer is simple, although I don’t know if you are willing or able to hear it. The answer is to go to Nevada where prostitution is legal, and sit down with some professional sex workers and try telling THEM all about how you believe that there is no separation between prostitution and being a victim of trafficking. Try telling those professionals how important you think it is that individuals have freedom over their own body and how you find it frankly appalling that anyone would ever try to deny people that freedom… and they will smack you upside the head with the hypocrisy of your denial of their freedom over their own bodies.

    I think you’ll find a lot more support and success in solving the human trafficking problem and in rescuing victims once you yourself begin respecting individual’s freedom over their own bodies. Once you stop attacking individuals who choose to exercise that freedom and control over their own bodies. The biggest obstacle to ending trafficking, the biggest obstacle to rescuing victims, are laws criminalizing people who freely choose prostitution as a profession. The biggest obstacle is laws that threaten prostitutes with prison, thereby cutting them off from police and legal protection. The biggest obstacle is the denial of their freedom and control of their own bodies under threat of prison.

    As long as you are stuck on this idea that there is no line between prostitution and victim, as long as you insist on making professional prostitutes into some bizarre simultaneous combination of criminal and victim, then you are entrenching and shielding the criminals.

    The world would have been better served by tying the federal money to a requirement that groups have policies supporting the legalization of prostitution. Legalized prostitution would better prevent the spread of aids, and it would open the floodgates against criminal human traffickers.

  2. I don’t find the Supreme Court’s decision at all disappointing. This court case was not ABOUT human trafficking; it was about whether the GOVERNMENT could require private agencies and organizations to kow-tow to any particular government line about what to think and say in order to get funding for a specific purpose. NAME YOUR POISON.
    You’re a Ph.D, Mr. Mason (at least supposedly) — let’s say that in order to obtain funding for your particular branch of research, the government decided that you had to pronounce that phrenology was the way to sort people out in terms of character; or that in order to receive funding you had to sterilize certain “unworthy” individuals. Don’t laugh, that used to be the government line in THIS country.
    The First Amendment protects YOU and your right to speak regardless of the current government’s ideology or group-think. Frankly, I’d hate to have somebody with your thinking on the Supreme Court.
    Robert James
    Environmental journalist
    Nationally awarded writer


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