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Supreme Court Holds Censures Don’t Violate the First Amendment

By Lisa Soronen

In a unanimous opinion in Houston Community College v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court held that when a government board censures a member it doesn’t violate the First Amendment.

As Justice Gorsuch describes in his opinion, David Wilson’s tenure on the Houston Community College board was “stormy.” He accused the board of violating its bylaws and ethics rules in the media, he hired a private investigator to determine whether another board member lived in the district which elected her, and he repeatedly sued the board. The board censured him stating his conduct was “not consistent with the best interests of the College” and “not only inappropriate, but reprehensible.”

The Supreme Court held that Wilson has no actionable First Amendment free speech claim arising from the Board’s purely verbal censure. The Court began its analysis by noting that “elected bodies in this country have long exercised the power to censure their members. In fact, no one before us has cited any evidence suggesting that a purely verbal censure analogous to Mr. Wilson’s has ever been widely considered offensive to the First Amendment.” The Court also reasoned that Wilson could only have a First Amendment claim if he had been subject to an adverse action.

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