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Rust v. Sullivan

Citation. 22 Ill.500 U.S. 173, 111 S. Ct. 1759, 114 L. Ed. 2d 233 (1991)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Grantees of Federal “family planning funds” and doctors who supervised the use of those funds brought suit, alleging infringement on their First Amendment constitutional rights when they sought to express viewpoints and engage in activities which were inconsistent with the designated use of the funds.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The government may fund activities to the exclusion of others, without necessarily infringing on the rights of citizens to express their own views.


Title X of the Public Health Service Act (the Act) was enacted by Congress to provide federal funding for family-planning services. In 1988, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (the Secretary) outlined more specific guidance as to how the funds were to be used and that abortion was not to be considered a method of family planning, acceptable to the use of the funds. The Petitioners, Rust and others (Petitioners), brought suit, seeking injunctive relief against the implementation of the regulations, based on their First Amendment constitutional rights to political expression. They felt that the Act was unconstitutional because they suppressed their abilities to proscribe treatments, which aligned with their own political views. The District Court granted summary judgment for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Second Circuit Affirmed. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) granted certiorari.


The Court concerns itself with the question of whether, facially, the regulations as set forth by the Secretary, were authorized by the Act, and could be construed as applicable without infringing on the constitutional rights of others.


Justice William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist). Affirmed.
The court found that there was no question as to whether the prohibition of abortion-related activities was constitutional. Just because abortion is a political viewpoint to which Petitioners may subscribe, it does not necessarily follow that, in funding Petitioners, the government must fund their selected activities. The government can choose to fund one activity (in this case family planning), to the exclusion of another (abortion), without discriminating against anyone’s viewpoint. The government has not suppressed the Petitioners rights to express their views and engage in the activities of their choosing, it has merely chosen not to fund them.


Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun), in his dissent, disagrees that this is not viewpoint discrimination and notes that the Supreme Court focuses merely on governmental support in such discrimination to take place.


The government can, at its discretion, choose to fund certain activities to the exclusion of others. The threshold for considering the effect on First Amendment constitutional rights, however, is whether the government takes any proactive measure to prevent one from expressing his own views. In this case, the government did not prevent Petitioners from expressing themselves, it only refused to pay for them to do so.

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