Houston Comm. College System v. Wilson, 2022 WL 867307 (2022).

Censure of Board Member Did Not Violate the First Amendment

General Interest to School Officials
Case: Houston Comm. College System v. Wilson, 2022 WL 867307 (2022).
Date: Thursday, March 24, 2022

In the case of Houston Comm. College System v. Wilson, the Houston Community College’s Board of Trustees adopted a public resolution issuing a “disciplinary censure” against one of its elected trustees, David Wilson, for conduct “not consistent with the best interests of the College” and “not only inappropriate, but reprehensible.” Specifically, Mr. Wilson publicly complained of ethical and bylaw violations by the Board, arranged robocalls to constituents of certain trustees to publicize his views, hired a private investigator to determine the residency of a trustee, and filed multiple lawsuits against the Board, costing it considerable sums of money to defend. 

Mr. Wilson challenged the board’s censure of him in court, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated when the Board issued the “disciplinary censure” against him. Mr. Wilson did not claim the contents of the censure resolution were false or defamatory. The Court dismissed his claim, finding that the Board’s mere verbal censure (even if called a “disciplinary censure”) did to rise to the level of an “adverse action” necessary to obtain relief. The Court noted this country’s long tradition of publicly censuring lawmakers for their misconduct, stating that elected officials are expected to "shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service.” The Court held that the Board’s speech in the form of a censure against
Mr. Wilson was not actionable because it did not deter Mr. Wilson, also an elected official, from exercising his own right to speak. Nor did the censure deny Mr. Wilson any privilege of his office or prevent from doing his job as a board member. Finally, the Court noted its ruling was limited to a government body’s censure of one of its members. It stated there could be other cases where a mere verbal reprimand or censure could still be actionable under the First Amendment, including government official reprimands of students or employees.