Justia Summary

Wilson, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System, brought multiple lawsuits challenging the Board’s actions. In 2016, the Board publicly reprimanded Wilson. He continued to charge the Board with violating its ethical rules and bylaws, in media outlets and in state-court actions. In 2018, the Board adopted a public resolution “censuring” Wilson and stating that his conduct was “not consistent with the best interests of the College” and “reprehensible.” The Board deemed Wilson ineligible for Board officer positions during 2018. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Wilson’s suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983.

The Supreme Court held that Wilson does not possess an actionable First Amendment claim arising from the Board’s purely verbal censure. In First Amendment cases, long-settled and established practice “is a consideration of great weight.” Elected bodies have long exercised the power to censure their members. In disagreements of this sort, the First Amendment permits “[f]ree speech on both sides and for every faction on any side.”

A plaintiff pursuing a First Amendment retaliation claim must show that the government took an “adverse action” in response to his speech that “would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive.” Any fair assessment of the materiality of the Board’s conduct must consider that elected representatives are expected to shoulder some criticism about their public service and that the only adverse action at issue is itself a form of speech from Wilson’s colleagues. The censure did not prevent Wilson from doing his job and did not deny him any privilege of office. Wilson does not allege it was defamatory. The censure does not qualify as a materially adverse action capable of deterring Wilson from exercising his own right to speak.