The University of Houston had an expansive harassment policy that prohibited a wide array of constitutionally protected speech, including microaggressions, stereotyping or even jokes. This went unquestioned by any of the UH administrators or Board of Regents members. Furthermore, the university stood by its policy and defended it when Speech First sued on behalf of its student members.
While naming the administrators and campus leadership responsible for this insidious policy, Speech First won a decisive settlement that included three major wins for the freedom of speech. First, the university promised to eliminate the unconstitutional policy and never reinstate it. Second, the university promised to adopt a new policy that properly balances the policing of harassment with respect for students’ First Amendment rights. And third, the university agreed to pay $30,000, which is equivalent to about three years of tuition for students at UH. This last part hit the university where it feels it the most: the bottom line.
During litigation, the university argued that its policy was similar to the anti-harassment policies of other universities around the country, as if that somehow justifies trampling all over the Constitution. The shame and penalty for the university should be a warning to other universities — if you adopt unconstitutional policies, we will see you in court. A tangible cost, like the one in our case (or the $32 million judgment against Oberlin College for defaming a local business) should influence the decisions of administrators on campuses going forward.
It’s time to hold universities and their leadership accountable not only for their unlawful practices, but also for their hostility toward conservative students. Rules that are clearly designed to target conservative viewpoints exhibit an animus that other students and faculty pick up on and exploit to shut down their political enemies. This creates an environment that encourages hostility and orthodoxy of thought rather than the open and free exchange of ideas necessary for a quality education. Conservatives need to create tangible and memorable consequences for chilling speech codes and other pernicious policies.
Speech First’s lawsuits, including this one against the UH, are brought against campus senior leadership and the university administrators who are responsible for the policy. For example, in our lawsuits against UH, we made sure to draw attention to the university’s general counsel’s office, which instructed student leaders that constitutionally protected speech about race, religion and gender would violate campus policies and the student code of conduct.
All too often conservatives fall back, compromise and take our foot off the gas. Meanwhile the far left targets, bullies and destroys the lives of those it considers enemies of its dogmatic agendas. Progressives attack you while you’re eating, shut down your social media accounts, accuse you of harassment, get you fired, destroy your reputation and broadcast where your family lives. By no means should the conservative movement adopt these shameless and dishonorable tactics. But it needs to be recognized that the era of warning letters and half measures is long past over.
Currently, there is a heavy dependence on talking heads, leakers and social media influencers to score points. But ground cannot be gained merely with popular podcasts. These messages may resonate to an extent, but they don’t pack the punch of a legal win that codifies good policy, creates lasting precedent and leaves a permanent record of shame. Universities must know that there will be consequences when they violate the Constitution.
• Cherise Trump is Speech First’s executive director and host of Speech First’s new live show and podcast, “Well Said.”