Ban on Funding for 'Offensive' AIDS Materials Overturned
In a decision that could have a broad impact on AIDS-education efforts, a federal district judge in New York City last week struck down regulations issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control prohibiting the use of federal funds for AIDS-prevention materials that could be considered "offensive.''
The decision handed down by U.S. District Judge Shirley Wohl Kram affects the rules governing the C.D.C.'s $200-million AIDS-education grant program for national education groups, community groups, the states, and 16 school districts.
Under the rule, which has been in effect for four years, educators, health experts, and community leaders receiving C.D.C. funds must submit their education materials to a review panel. The panel may reject such materials if it finds them to be "offensive'' to "a majority of adults beyond the target audience'' or to promote intravenous drug use or heterosexual or homosexual activity.
In her ruling, Judge Kram said the rule is "unconstitutionally vague.''
"Can educational material be offensive simply because it mentions homosexuality? Because it depicts an interracial couple?'' she wrote. "Can a proposed AIDS-education project be offensive because it traps a captive audience, such as subway riders, and forces them to look at a condom?''
Judge Kram said the C.D.C. directive has had a "chilling effect'' on the development of anti-AIDS materials.
"Because the grant terms are subjective and imprecise, AIDS educators cannot predict with any certainty what materials will be approved,'' the judge wrote. "Thus, they are forced to censor themselves and concentrate on proposals that will pass the 'offensiveness' test with room to spare.''
Some groups, she wrote, have simply avoided seeking C.D.C. funding. She cited the Hetrick Martin Institute, one of the plaintiffs in the case, whose officials are quoted in the decision as saying they have not sought C.D.C. funding for their outreach efforts to gay and lesbian teenagers because they are afraid that their frankly worded material would not receive approval.
'This Will Save Lives'
Ruth E. Harlow, a staff attorney with the AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the ruling.
"Finally, clear and supportive AIDS education can reach all the communities that desperately need it,'' said Ms. Harlow, whose group filed the suit on behalf of Gay Men's Health Crisis and several other organizations that serve people with AIDS. "This decision strongly reaffirms that public health and the Constitution are more important than some vague notion of squeamishness about explicit H.I.V.-prevention material.''
"This decision will save lives,'' said David Cole, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose group also filed the suit.
But Charmaine Crouse Yoest, a policy analyst with the Family Resource Council, said the C.D.C. "needs to develop guidelines that are very specific so that parents and teenagers are protected from objectionable, offensive, and obscene material.''
"We feel that the objectives that the C.D.C. was pursuing were good ones,'' she said.
A spokesman for the C.D.C. said federal officials have not yet decided if they will appeal the case.
Limited Impact on Schools
Educators, while backing the decision, said none of their own materials have been rejected by review panels because of their controversial nature.
James H. Williams, the head of the National Education Association's Health Information Network, acknowledged that "there are a couple of projects we did not even ask for C.D.C. funding.''
In one case, he said, the program used other sources to fund a video that portrayed teachers giving an AIDS-education lesson.
Local educators said the review panels have not hampered their anti-AIDS efforts.
Beverly Bradley, the supervisor of health programs for the San Francisco Unified School District, said the local review panel suggested revising some of the district's materials because they did not adequately reflect the school system's ethnic mix. But there have been no attempts to censor education materials, she said.