Supreme Court Reminds Us That the Best Answer to Unwanted Speech Is More Speech

A reprimand “does not materially impair freedom of speech,” says SCOTUS. There’s an old adage—spawned by the 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 contempt 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 US 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.

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