Does the First Amendment prevent a public servant from being censured by his colleagues? – Reason.com


In 2018, the board of directors of the Houston Community College System (HCC), an elected nine-member body that governs a network of community colleges in the greater Houston, Texas area, officially censored one of its own members. for “improper conduct”. ”And for acting in a manner“ inconsistent with the best interests of the Order or Council ”. According to this deputy, the vote of censure caused him mental anguish and violated his right to freedom of expression. The United States Supreme Court will hear oral argument in this case this fall.

The case is Houston Community College System v. Wilson. David Buren Wilson was an elected member of the HCC board who strongly opposed some of the board’s decisions, including the vote to fund an overseas campus in Qatar. He made his displeasure known by speaking in local media, posting a website listing his criticisms, mounting a robocall campaign against the HCC, hiring a private investigator to investigate his fellow council members and by continuing the advice itself. After the council censored him, he also sued on the grounds of free speech.

In April 2020, Wilson prevailed before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which declared that “a reprimand against an elected official for a speech on a matter of public interest is a First Amendment lawsuit “.

But this decision did not please the other eight judges of the 5th circuit, who argued that a plenary session of the tribunal should have heard the case again and arrived at the opposite result. In particular, Judge Edith Jones, joined by Justices Don Willett, James Ho, Kyle Duncan and Andrew Oldham, criticized the three-judge panel for overturning the First Amendment. “The First Amendment was never intended to restrict speech and debate in legislative bodies,” Jones wrote. The board of directors of the HCC, in other words, had every right to issue “censorship against this gadfly legislator”.

As Jones said, “Other lawmakers can deal harsh verbal blows, and all is fair when they wield a company’s power to censor or reprimand one of their members; such actions are not a violation of the First Amendment, but its embodiment in partisan politics. “

Ho wrote separately to further emphasize his objections to the three-judge panel’s mismanagement of free speech principles involved in the case. “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, not freedom of speech, “he wrote.” This guarantees the right to criticize, not the right not to be criticized. Ho then told Wilson to suck and stop being such a crybaby. “Leaders are not afraid of being booed,” he wrote. “And they sure don’t chase when they are. “

A majority of the United States Supreme Court may well take into account the dissenting voices of the 5th Circuit when the court considers the case this fall. After all, as the HCC points out in its main memory, “A public speech by an individual legislator may very well provoke public censorship from the current majority of the body, speaking on behalf of the institution itself. The amendment seeks to promote, not to coerce. “


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