Univ. of Houston's anti-discrimination policy chills free speech - judge

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REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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  • University of Houston cannot enforce its anti-harassment policy
  • Lawsuit one of several by Speech First challenging campus anti-harassment policies

(Reuters) - A federal judge has blocked the University of Houston from reinstating an anti-discrimination policy that subjected students to discipline for harassment, agreeing with a conservative group that it wrongly chilled free speech.

Friday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes in Houston marked the latest victory for Speech First, a nonprofit that has sued various schools over what it says are campus speech restrictions under the guise of anti-harassment policies.

Under the school's policy, students could face discipline ranging from probation to suspension or expulsion for subjecting other students "to unlawful severe, pervasive, or persistent treatment" on the basis of their race, color, gender, age, religion or sexual orientation.

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But Speech First argued the university's definition of harassment was so broad that it included "negative stereotyping," "denigrating jokes," and other forms of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Hughes said the school's policy did not comport with standards adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999's Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education and that a preliminary injunction was necessary to provide students "defenses against arbitrary professors."

"The University cannot choose to abide by the First Amendment in the Constitution," Hughes, an appointee of former Republican President Ronald Reagan, wrote. "It is not guidance — it is the law."

Cherise Trump, Speech First's executive director, in a statement welcomed the ruling, saying the policy "subjects students to discipline "for merely expressing mainstream conservative opinions that other students find objectionable."

Arun Subramanian and Daniel Wilson, lawyers for the university at Susman Godfrey, had no immediate comment.

The university's anti-discrimination policy has been in effect since 2012, and the school said it was key to ensure that its more than 70,000 students, staff and faculty "have access to an environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment."

The university earlier this month ahead of a court hearing changed its policy to more narrowly define harassment. But Hughes said there remained a risk the school could reinstate the original one.

He cited an earlier case Speech First brought against University of Texas at Austin, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020 held that the school's decision to change similar policies did not moot the group's lawsuit.

In a more recent case by Speech First, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in April concluded a University of Central Florida policy targeting "discriminatory harassment" likely also violated the First Amendment.

The case is Speech First Inc v. Khator, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 22-cv-00582.

For Speech First Inc: Michael Connolly of Consovoy McCarthy

For the University of Houston: Arun Subramanian and Daniel Wilson of Susman Godfrey

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University's discrimination harassment policy stifles free speech, court rules

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.