Friday, December 1, 2023

SCOTUS hears about censuring school board members


As school boards across the country find themselves at the center of hot controversies, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments Tuesday in a case that could decide if elected school boards can censure members for their speech or whether such punishment violates the censured board member’s free speech rights.

The facts of the case are these:

David Wilson is an elected trustee on the Houston Community College board, but after serving for a time, he disagreed with several board actions, NPR reports. He pressured other trustees by making robocalls, dialing into radio talk shows, publishing comments on his own website, and filing four lawsuits against the board.

Eventually, the board voted to censure Mr Wilson for his behavior and take away some of his board privileges. He then sued the board, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated by the punishment.

A federal district court threw his case out, but the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit allowed the lawsuit to continue. That brought the board to the Supreme Court, where it was clear Mr Wilson’s attorneys believed he should not be censured for speech he made outside the board meetings.

Are you saying, NPR quoted Justice Amy Coney Barrett as asking Mr Wilson’s attorneys, that a member of a legislative body could censure a member for uttering racial slurs during a debate, but when that person “then walks out onto the steps and gives a press conference, and repeats those exact same racial slurs, that could never be censured?” Yes, replied Mr Wilson’s attorney, “that’s correct.”

The board’s attorney, on the other hand, pointed out that Congress, also an elected body, had often censured its members for public and private speech, fining one member $50,000 for misconduct in 2020.

Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern in this case, as well, that if it proceeds, every censure vote in elected bodies from school boards to Congress could end up in court.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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