The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS), on Thursday, handed down a unique unanimous ruling, that was against an elected public college named Dave Wilson, who is a Texas official who argued his free speech rights were violated after his colleagues verbally censured him for speaking out against the school system.
The case concerns free speech protections and limitations on an elected governing body’s authority to censure a member for their speech.
The questions presented: “Does the First Amendment restrict the authority of an elected body to issue a censure resolution in response to a member’s speech?”
The board censured Wilson for his actions, barring him from holding officer positions with the board and requiring Wilson to cease and desist. Wilson claimed the censure violated his constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection.
“The justices had stepped into a yearslong dispute between the Houston Community College board of trustees and one of its members, Dave Wilson. The board oversees various community colleges in Texas. Wilson has sued his colleagues on several occasions, arranged for robocalls against some, and even hired a private investigator to try to prove another didn’t live in the district she represents, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his opinion for the court,” The Associated Press reported.
In 2018, the Texas board adopted a resolution of censure against Wilson, calling his conduct ‘not only inappropriate but reprehensible.’
The censure followed an earlier reprimand from the board. Wilson challenged the censure with lawsuits. A trial court had dismissed Wilson’s claim, but an appellate panel reinstated it, leading to the Supreme Court case.
According to court documents, beginning in 2017, Wilson voiced concern that trustees were violating the Board’s bylaws and not acting in the best interests of HCC. After disagreeing with HCC’s decision to fund a campus in Qatar, Wilson made his complaints public by arranging robocalls regarding the Board’s actions and interviewing with a local radio station. When HCC allowed one trustee to vote via videoconference, Wilson contended that the bylaws prohibited such voting.
He subsequently filed a lawsuit against HCC and the individual Board trustees in state court seeking a declaratory judgment that the videoconference vote was illegal under the bylaws and requesting an injunction. After the Board allegedly excluded Wilson from an executive session, he filed a second lawsuit against HCC and the trustees in state court asserting that his exclusion was unlawful and again seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.
Gorsuch, a nominee of President Donald J. Trump, wrote in the opinion of the high court that a “purely verbal censure” of a colleague is not a First Amendment violation.
“Doubtless, by invoking its ‘censure’ authority in the second resolution the Board added a measure of sting. But we cannot see how that alone changed the equation and materially inhibited Mr. Wilson’s ability to speak freely,” Gorsuch wrote, calling the court’s decision a narrow one.
In the full statement of the court’s unanimous opinion, Justice Gorsuch wrote:
[T]he only adverse action at issue before the Court is itself a form of speech from Mr. Wilson’s colleagues that concerns the conduct of public office. The First Amendment surely promises an elected representative like Mr. Wilson the right to speak freely on questions of government policy, but it cannot be used as a weapon to silence other representatives seeking to do the same.
The censure at issue before us was a form of speech by elected representatives concerning the public conduct of another elected representative. Everyone involved was an equal member of the same deliberative body. The censure did not prevent Mr. Wilson from doing his job, it did not deny him any privilege of office, and Mr. Wilson does not allege it was defamatory.
Given the features of Mr. Wilson’s case, the Board’s censure does not qualify as a materially adverse action capable of deterring Mr. Wilson from exercising his own right to speak. … Neither history nor this Court’s precedents support finding a viable First Amendment claim here—Justice Neil Gorsuch
The case came on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. To review the lower court’s opinion which is here.
Ballotpedia reported on the decision adding some more details:
Houston Community College System v. Wilson is a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on March 24, 2022, during the court’s October 2021-2022 term. The case was argued before the court on November 2, 2021. The court reversed the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, holding David Wilson, the defendant, did not have an actionable First Amendment claim.