- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2022

The University of Houston has agreed to end a broad-ranging harassment policy and pay a settlement after a federal judge agreed with three conservative students that it stifled their constitutional right to free speech.

In a statement emailed to The Washington Times on Friday, the school said it had reached “an amicable agreement with the plaintiff and now considers this matter resolved.”

“As a result of our discussions, a revised anti-discrimination policy has been adopted. The UH System remains committed to protecting the constitutional rights of our students and employees,” the statement reads.

Speech First, whose lawyers sue universities on behalf of conservative students for First Amendment violations, said in a press release Friday that the Texas school had agreed to end the policy and pay $30,000 in court fees to the advocacy group for representing the students in court.

Cherise Trump, Speech First’s executive director, said in a statement that the university also agreed to adopt a new policy that conforms to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education that schools may limit only “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” speech.

“This is a huge win for the First Amendment,” Ms. Trump said. “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.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes granted the students a preliminary injunction on May 20, ruling that the policy’s threat of suspending or expelling students for “unlawful severe, pervasive, or persistent treatment” based on race, color, gender, age, religion or sexual orientation was too broad to protect them from the censorship of “arbitrary professors.”

“Restraint on free speech is prohibited absent limited circumstances carefully proscribed by the Supreme Court,” wrote Judge Hughes, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. “Any limitation deserves the [utmost] scrutiny.”

The university updated its anti-discrimination policy with the new definition of harassment on Dec. 27.

The new policy stated that even “[m]inor 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.”

Speech First’s attorneys argued in the lawsuit, filed Feb. 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, that the policy’s inclusion of “negative stereotyping” and “denigrating jokes” on and off campus — including social media — infringed on students’ constitutionally protected speech.

The three students, anonymous in the lawsuit, said the policy kept them from expressing opinions on topics ranging from transgender athletes to immigration without fear of punishment.

In February, the University of Houston told The Washington Times in a statement that conservatives “misconstrued or misread” the policy’s intention to punish only “unlawful” harassment.

Friday’s settlement announcement marks the latest victory for Speech First, which has filed similar lawsuits across the country.

In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit sided with Speech First in striking down a similar anti-discrimination policy at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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