A Texas federal judge has enjoined the University of Houston from enforcing a student speech policy that includes "denigrating jokes" as a form of punishable harassment — a win for a free speech legal group challenging the policy.
In an order Thursday, Judge Lynn Hughes of the U.S. Southern District of Texas barred the university from enforcing its policy, ruling in favor of free speech legal advocacy organization Speech First, which had challenged the university's policy, saying it violated the free speech protections under the First Amendment. The group had sought a preliminary injunction, which Hughes granted, indicating the organization is likely to succeed in its litigation.
"The university cannot choose to abide by the First Amendment in the Constitution," Hughes, a Reagan appointee, wrote in the three-page order. "It is not guidance — it is law. Restraint on free speech is prohibited absent limited circumstances carefully prescribed by the Supreme Court. Any limitation deserves the utmost scrutiny."
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The initial lawsuit, which was filed in February, had noted that under the university's policy, even "minor verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, annoyances, insults, or isolated incidents including, but not limited to microaggressions" can constitute harassment if "such incidents keep happening over time and are targeting a Protected Class" and that such a policy has a chilling effect on student speech.
In a statement Monday, Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump praised the judge's ruling as "another huge victory for students in Texas" that "sends a clear message to all universities that restrictions on student speech will not be tolerated simply because listeners find certain ideas to be offensive or controversial."
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“The University’s policy subjects students to formal discipline for ‘harassment’ for merely expressing mainstream conservative opinions that other students find objectionable," Trump said. "This overbroad restriction on speech forces students to habitually self-censor and refrain from beliefs that are inconsistent with the ‘consensus’ on campus. Higher education should be a sanctuary for debate where students can express their beliefs and engage with opposing viewpoints.”