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A school board has the right to censure a disruptive member, the Supreme Court rules

Paolo Koch
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

With schools boards all over the country finding themselves embroiled in controversy, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the right of a community college board to censure one of its own members.

The court's unanimous ruling came in the case of David Wilson, an elected trustee of the Houston Community College board who sued his fellow board members, charging that they violated his First Amendment right to free speech by censuring him.

Wilson was elected to a six-year term on board in 2013, but he soon found himself at odds with the other board members, blasting them on robocalls, on the radio, on his website, and filing four lawsuits against the board, which cost taxpayers close to $300,000 in legal fees. He even hired a private investigator to see if a fellow board member really lived in the district she represented.

When the board finally censured him for his behavior in 2018, Wilson went to court, contending that the censure violated his First Amendment Right to free speech. A federal district court dismissed the case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reinstated the suit. On Thursday the Supreme Court unanimously reversed that judgment.

Writing for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch said: "A reprimand, no matter how strongly worded, does not materially impair freedom of speech," especially when "the censure at issue before us was a form of speech" by the other elected representatives on the board.

Gorsuch noted that elected bodies in the U.S. have long exercised the power to censure their members. Members of Congress have long been censured by their fellow members for matters ranging from unethical conduct to "insulting...the Speaker."

In modern times, the Supreme Court has ruled that Congress, as well as state legislatures, may not refuse to seat a duly elected representative, but as the court noted on Thursday, "the power to exclude and the power to issue other, lesser forms of discipline are not fungible under our constitution."

Instead, as the court put it, "argument and counterargument, not litigation, are the weapons available for resolving this dispute."

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.