A reprimand "does not materially impair freedom of speech," says SCOTUS. There's an old adage—spawned by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1927—that the best way to counter speech one doesn't agree with is not with censorship but with more speech. That seems to be a principle the Court still agrees with (thankfully). In a Thursday ruling, justices unanimously ruled against Houston Community College System board member David Wilson, who had accused his colleagues on the college school board of violating his First Amendment rights by verbally 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," notes NPR. "He even hired a private investigator to see if a fellow board member really lived in the district she represented."

In response to all this, the other board members issued a public rebuke of Wilson, calling his actions and speech "not consistent with the best interests of the College" and "not only inappropriate, but reprehensible." Wilson contended that this was unconstitutional.

When Wilson first sued, back in 2018, a district court dismissed the case. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reversed course, saying that the lawsuit could proceed. A verbal "reprimand against an elected official for speech addressing a matter of public concern is an actionable First Amendment claim," the appellate court said. 

Now, SCOTUS has said otherwise.

"A reprimand, no matter how strongly worded, does not materially impair freedom of speech," wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the Court's opinion. In fact, "the censure at issue before us was a form of speech" by Wilson's colleagues. And it's one long recognized as a way for elected bodies to address quibbles with members.

"Argument and 'counterargument,' not litigation, are the 'weapons available' for resolving this dispute," wrote Gorsuch (in part quoting the 1962 case Wood v. Georgia).

He noted Wilson is an elected official, and elected officials must "shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers—and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes."

"The First Amendment surely promises an elected representative like Mr. Wilson the
right to speak freely on questions of government policy," notes Gorsuch. "But just as surely, it cannot be used as a weapon to silence other representatives seeking to do the same.

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