As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear the case of Houston Community College Systems v. David Wilson in two weeks, the Texas Association of School Boards Legal Assistance Fund (TASB LAF) filed a brief in support of the Houston Community College System.
The Houston Community College System v. David Wilson case arose in 2017-2018 when elected HCC Trustee David Wilson publicly disagreed with some of the actions taken by others on the nine-member board of trustees. In January of 2018, the HCC trustees censured David Wilson for his public comments disagreeing with the board’s decisions, including the HCC decision to fund a campus in Qatar.
Now TASB, which has yet to withdraw from the National Association of School Boards following their call for critical parents to be investigated as domestic terrorists, is seeking to further control the speech of publicly elected officials.
According to the decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which HCC is seeking to overturn in the U.S. Supreme Court):
A reprimand against an elected official for speech addressing a matter of public concern is an actionable First Amendment claim under §1983. Here, the Board’s censure of Wilson specifically noted it was punishing him for “criticizing other Board members for taking positions that differ from his own” concerning the Qatar campus, including robocalls, local press interviews, and a website. The censure also punished Wilson for filing suit alleging the Board was violating its bylaws. As we have previously held, “[R]eporting municipal corruption undoubtedly constitutes speech on a matter of public concern.” Therefore, we hold that Wilson has stated a claim against HCC under §1983 in alleging that its Board violated his First Amendment right to free speech when it publicly censured him.
In contrast, TASB LAF’s brief extols the virtues of the censure and states, “Indeed, censure—a long held power utilized by elected governmental bodies—allows the HCC Board to not only self-govern but also to speak for itself by addressing and denouncing John Q. Board Member’s conduct in order to continue its important work of serving HCC’s students.”
TASB LAF further states:
School boards across Texas have been challenged with individual board member misbehavior including posting discriminatory social media rants, seeking special treatment because of the board member’s elected office, independently investigating employees, publicly releasing confidential information, demanding district administrators forbid employees from speaking Spanish in schools, openly criticizing fellow board members, interfering in matters outside the scope of the board member’s statutory duties as a trustee, violating state election law, leaving board meetings early, yelling at fellow trustees, and inappropriately criticizing a school district’s teachers. This type of conduct undermines the trust the public places in school and community college boards through operational disruptions that prevent boards from fulfilling the mission of educating students.
If the Houston Community College System and TASB have their way, any board member who attempts to stand for their constituents rather than for the autocratic school board could face potential silencing.