Speech First, a membership organization advocating for freedom of speech on college campuses, filed a lawsuit naming UH President Renu Khator in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas last February. The lawsuit is on behalf of three students who said the university’s anti-discrimination policy had a chilling effect on protected speech.
“This is a huge win for the First Amendment,” said Speech First’s Executive Director Cherise Trump in a statement. “It sends a message to the University of Houston and other universities that they will be held accountable if they enact unconstitutional policies on campus.”
Enacted in December 2021, the UH policy prohibited students from engaging in “harassment” of members of a “Protected Class,” noting that even “[m]inor verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, annoyances, insults, or isolated incidents including, but not limited to microaggressions,” could constitute a violation subject to disciplinary action.
Plaintiffs in Speech First v. Khator noted that the university also claimed to have jurisdiction over incidents that occurred “off University Premises between two University-Affiliated individuals,” making the policy extraordinarily broad.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes ruled that the UH policy was a violation of speech protection under the First Amendment, writing, “The University cannot choose to abide by the First Amendment in the Constitution. It is not guidance—it is the law.”
Hughes had also warned that Speech First would likely succeed in the case since the UH policy did not comport with precedent set by the Supreme Court in Davis v Monroe County Board of Education, which requires that harassment be “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.”
Although UH administrators revised the controversial policy on the day prior to a court conference, Hughes ruled that the university must not attempt to reinstate the policy in the future.
UH confirmed the policy had been revised in a written statement saying, “The UH System remains committed to protecting the constitutional rights of our students and employees.”
Colleges and universities in Texas and across the nation have increasingly come under fire for stifling the free exchange of controversial ideas in recent years. Last year, a diverse group of professors and advocates announced the formation of the new University of Austin with a commitment to ideological diversity and academic freedom.
A Speech First lawsuit resulted in the University of Texas dismantling a campus speech investigative body in 2020, and earlier this year, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the organization and struck down another anti-discrimination policy implemented by the University of Central Florida.
“Universities across the country should be put on notice that overbroad policies designed to chill student speech will not be tolerated,” said Trump.
“Every institution of higher learning should protect freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the open exchange of ideas, not muzzle students with speech codes that disregard federal guidelines and the U.S. Constitution.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.