Reason Roundup

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

Plus: On tipping and slavery, cities see population declines, and more...


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.

You can read the full decision here.

Education Week notes that the case is "relevant to K-12 school boards dealing with disruptive members," not just these particular actors and/or colleges. "Briefs filed in the case touched on numerous examples of K-12 school boards censuring their members, and the court's decision will not upset the authority of boards to carry out such formal reprimands," it adds. "Recent examples show that school boards have censured their members over offensive outbursts or social media speech on hot-button issues such as COVID-19 protocols, teaching about race, and transgender student rights."


A fact check on the origins of tipping: 


Big city populations tumbled last year, according to newly released data from the Census Bureau. The pandemic saw the populations of major American urban centers plummet as residents fled for less crowded and less expensive locales.

Between July 2020 and July 2021, more than 700,000 people (combined) moved out of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.

Mobility and choice are the upside of this story. But there are more disheartening explanations, as well, including more deaths and steep declines in immigration. Overall, "more than 73% (2,297) of U.S. counties experienced natural decrease in 2021, up from 45.5% in 2019 and 55.5% in 2020," the Census Bureau says.

While the largest U.S. cities saw population decreases, smaller cities gained population over that same time period. Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix added a combined 300,000 residents.

"The pattern is a notable contrast from a decade ago, when large cities were growing, bolstered by a decades-long boom in immigration and the rising popularity of urban living. At that time, most of the counties losing population were rural or experiencing economic decline," notes The New York Times.


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