SCOTUS Taking Up Free Speech for School Board Members

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) heard arguments in Houston Community College v. Wilson, a case that seeks clarification on the First Amendment rights of members of governing bodies, including K-12 school boards. 

The case was brought in 2020 by David Buren Wilson, a Houston Community College board trustee who was censured by the board after criticizing a 2017 decision to open a campus in Qatar. Wilson’s case begs the question of whether or not censuring a board member violates that member’s First Amendment rights.

At the other side of the case is a fundamental question of whether or not governing bodies of educational insitutiitions should have authority to “self-govern,” including the ability to censure members. Though the case is specific to a Texas community college, it could have national implications for school boards around the country that largely enjoy independent disciplinary authority of their members.

Educational commentary and news outlet The74 explained what’s at stake:

While the case pertains to a community college, it’s impact is likely to be far broader. It is playing out as school board members across the country confront multiple divisive issues, from requiring masks to teaching students about racial discrimination. While boards this year have faced public protests and sometimes verbal and physical attacks over their positions, disputes among members — sometimes outside the boardroom — are happening as well. The court’s decision could limit efforts to rein in members who use social media or other platforms to air complaints against the board. Supporters of the community college board, including the National School Boards Association, argue that a ruling for Wilson could bring the actions of elected boards “squarely within the purview of federal district courts, crippling a public body’s ability to self-govern.” But free speech advocates argue elected boards can go too far.

Experts are currently considering a number of potential rulings that could come from the case, including the possibility that the high court will issue a limited ruling just on the merits of Wilson’s case.

Regardless, the case and the greater national conversation around the ability of legislative bodies to self-govern while respecting the fundamental freedom of speech is a timely one. School boards around the country are grappling with internal and external conflict over everything from COVID-19 mandates to equity programming and inclusive school policies.

Stay tuned to the Conduit Street Blog for more coverage on this case and other pressing education issues.

Read the The74’s full reporting on Houston Community College System v. Wilson.

Review the case’s history and accompanying documents.