The US Supreme Court Thursday ruled in a unanimous opinion that a member of an elected body does not have a viable First Amendment claim arising from verbal censure.
The case Houston Community College System v. Wilson involved David Wilson, a former elected trustee of the Houston Community College System. Shortly after being elected to the board, Wilson began publicly and enthusiastically critiquing the institution. This included speaking out about policies, hiring private investigators to look into another trustee and filing lawsuits against the college and individual members.
In 2018, the board publicly censured Wilson, stating his actions were “not consistent with the best interests of the College or the Board” and were “not only inappropriate, but reprehensible.” Wilson then amended the pleadings in one of his pending lawsuits to add claims under 42 USC § 1983, alleging that the censure violated the First Amendment.
The district court granted Houston Community College’s motion to dismiss the complaint, finding that Wilson lacked standing under Article III. The Fifth Circuit reversed, finding that Wilson had standing and that his complaint stated a viable First Amendment claim. In April 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The court issued its opinion on Thursday.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the court, acknowledged the long, uncontested history of elected bodies exercising the authority to censure members. He noted, “We expect elected representatives to shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers—and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes.” Further, he stated that the censure was itself a form of speech:
The censure at issue before us was a form of speech by elected representatives. It concerned the public conduct of another elected representative. Everyone involved was an equal member of the same deliberative body. As it comes to us, too, 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. At least in these circumstances, we do not see how the Board’s censure could have materially deterred an elected official like Mr. Wilson from exercising his own right to speak.
The ruling was narrow, as the federal government stressed in an amicus brief. It looked at only “censure of one member of an elected body by other members of the same body.” It does not speak to any other form of punishment or any other claims.