A judge has struck down the University of Houston’s new harassment policy, siding with three conservative students who argued the policy impinged on the right to free expression on topics from transgender athletes to immigration.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes wrote in a preliminary injunction on Friday 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 former President Ronald Reagan. “Any limitation deserves the utmost scrutiny.”
The anti-discrimination policy states that 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.”
The judge’s ruling blocks the public research university from reinstating this definition of harassment, which administrators implemented on Dec. 27.
The University of Houston, which previously told The Washington Times in a statement that conservatives “misconstrued or misread” the policy’s intention to punish only “unlawful” harassment, did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.
Friday’s ruling marks the latest victory for Speech First, an advocacy group that sues universities on behalf of conservative students for first amendment violations.
Last month, 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.
Speech First argued in the University of Houston lawsuit, filed Feb. 16 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 — amounted to a ban on constitutionally protected speech.
“The court’s ruling 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,” Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump said in a statement on Monday.
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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