A former college board member claims his free speech rights were violated when the board censured him.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case on Tuesday.
Censure refers to a formal condemnation of an elected official.
A school board controversy has made its way up to the Supreme Court, but it's not a high profile fight over COVID-19 mandates or academic curriculum.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments on whether a community college board can censure its own member without treading on the First Amendment.
The case concerns former Houston Community College System Board member David Wilson, who sued the nine-member board after it voted to censure him. Censure refers to a formal condemnation of an elected official issued by a governing body.
When he was elected to the board from 2013 to 2019, Wilson accused the board of being "plagued by accusations of corruption and other malfeasance," his lawyers wrote in a legal brief. Wilson spent those years publicly criticizing the board in media interviews and on his website. He also delivered robocalls, hired a private investigator to figure out where a board member lives, and filed lawsuits against the college.
In 2018, the board censured Wilson over his "not only inappropriate, but reprehensible" behavior that "warrants disciplinary action," the censure resolution said. The vote came after "an increasingly chaotic series of events," the board wrote in a brief.
The board argues that elected bodies at all levels in the country have long held the authority to censure or "express official disapproval" of its own members over their conduct, and that this case was no different.
Wilson claims the move violated his free speech rights. A federal district judge ruled against him, but the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed that decision, and the case now sits with the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court justices on Tuesday seemed hesitant to limit the power of elected bodies to censure its members and questioned how far the court should wade into the matter.
"It's a question of the political organization of the United States. There are legislatures, there are committees, there are state governments, and we are a court, which is just part of it. We don't run it," Justice Stephen Breyer said. "So, if we get into the business of starting to really oversee this, then we've changed the government structure significantly."
"Senator McCarthy was censured, destroying his political career. Well, that was up to the Congress," Breyer said, referring to Congress' censure of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1954.
Chief Justice John Roberts also pressed Wilson's lawyer, asking: "So under your view, the board could say everything it said in the resolution, except at the end say we would adopt a resolution of censure, but for that crazy Supreme Court decision in the Houston Community College System, which said we can't do that?"
Justice Samuel Alito questioned "if we say that the First Amendment allows forms of certain actions that have been historically taken by Congress against members of Congress, we're going down the path of drawing a line perhaps regarding the issue of which sorts of actions can be taken in retaliation for speech."
"One person says something derogatory about another person, and then the other person responds by saying
something derogatory about the first person. That's not a violation - nobody's free speech rights are violated there," he continued.
The court will hand down its decision by next June.
Read the original article on Business Insider