WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical on Tuesday that a community college in Texas violated the free speech rights of a former board member administration by blaming him for “reprehensible” behavior during his tumultuous tenure.
Judges heard nearly 90 minutes of oral argument as part of Houston Community College’s appeal against a lower court decision to revive a lawsuit from David Wilson that claimed school censorship – a formal act of discipline – violated the First Amendment protection of the US Constitution against government curtailment of free speech.
Questions asked by judges indicated that they may be reluctant to limit the ability of publicly elected bodies to respond to a member’s speech or conduct with censorship. Wilson was publicly elected to the school’s board of directors.
Censorship has been employed by democratic institutions throughout the history of the United States. Members of the United States Congress have at times been subject to censorship dating back two centuries, including the last few decades.
Wilson’s attorney, Michael Kimberly, told judges censures like the college’s had a chilling effect on elected officials’ speech, sparking skepticism from some judges.
Tory Chief Justice John Roberts said siding with Wilson would have “a chilling effect the other way around.”
“The majority of a board wants to say something about what they consider to be reprehensible or offensive conduct – and yet their speech is going to be chilled if you win it today,” Roberts told Kimberly .
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said he was concerned about the Supreme Court’s attempt to “watch” other branches of government.
Wilson served from 2013 to 2019 on the board of trustees of the college, a public institution in Texas’ largest city, with an enrollment of more than 50,000 students.
Some judges have expressed unease at some of the other penalties imposed on Wilson beyond actual censorship, including the denial of reimbursement of travel expenses.
Wilson is described in local media as a longtime anti-LGBT activist. He had previously started a petition to amend the City of Houston charter to ban men “who see themselves or speak for themselves as women” from using women’s restrooms, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Wilson said he ran for a seat on the board to expose the mismanagement of the university. He criticized the board’s decisions in the media and through robocalls, hired a private investigator to uncover corruption allegations, claimed on his website that other board members engaged in unethical or illegal behavior and sued the board twice for actions it opposed.
The board of directors voted to censor him in 2018, saying his conduct was “not only inappropriate, but reprehensible”. The discipline also revoked its privileges as a trustee to access certain funds for travel and other college-related activities.
Wilson sued to stop censorship enforcement, seeking damages, including for mental anguish.
The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in 2020 overturned a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the case, allowing it to continue. The 5th Circuit ruled that a “reprimand against an elected official for speaking on a matter of public interest is an actionable First Amendment claim.”
Report by Andrew Chung in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham
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