Board Member Did Not Have First Amendment Claim Arising Out Of Board’s Verbal Censure Against Him

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Apr 27, 2022

In 2013, David Wilson was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System (“HCC”). Wilson often disagreed with the Board about the direction and best interests of HCC, and he brought multiple lawsuits challenging the Board’s actions. These disagreements led the Board to reprimand Wilson publicly. Wilson also charged the Board in various media outlets with violating its bylaws and ethical rules. At a 2018 Board meeting, the Board adopted a public resolution “censuring” Wilson. The resolution stated that Wilson’s conduct was not consistent with the best interests of HCC and “not only inappropriate but reprehensible.” The Board also imposed penalties on Wilson, including that Wilson was ineligible for election to Board officer positions for the 2018 calendar year, that he was ineligible for reimbursement for any HCC related travel, and that his future requests to access funds in his Board account for community affairs would require Board approval.

Wilson filed a lawsuit challenging the Board’s actions under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging, among other things, that the Board’s censure violated his First Amendment rights. Wilson sought injunctive and declaratory relief, as well as damages for mental anguish, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. HCC moved to dismiss Wilson’s complaint. The trial court granted HCC’s motion to dismiss, concluding that Wilson lacked standing to bring his claim. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding that Wilson had standing and that his complaint stated a viable First Amendment claim. In response, the HCC filed a petition to the United States Supreme Court asking to review the Fifth Circuit’s judgment that Wilson may pursue a First Amendment claim based on a purely verbal censure.

The issue before the United States Supreme Court was whether the Board’s censure offended Wilson’s First Amendment right to free speech. Under Court precedent, a plaintiff pursuing a First Amendment retaliation claim must show, among other things, that the government took an “adverse action” in response to his speech that “would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive.”

The Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s judgment and held that Wilson did not have a First Amendment claim arising from the Board’s verbal censure. The Supreme Court stated that Wilson was an elected official, and elected representatives are expected 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. The Supreme Court found that the censure did not prevent Wilson from doing his job, nor did it deny him any privilege of office. Therefore, the Board’s censure did not qualify as a materially adverse action capable of deterring Wilson from exercising his own right to speak.

Houston Community College System v. David Wilson (2022) 142 S. Ct. 1253.

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