University of Houston Students Sue Over Campus Speech Code

There is a new free speech lawsuit on a college campus this week after three University of Houston students sued over a new anti-discrimination policy. The students are unnamed in the complaint, which was brought by Speech First. They alleged that they are chilled in expressing their views on issues like gender because they are now treated as forms of discrimination or harassment.

Under the new policy, discrimination or harassment on campus is now defined as including “negative stereotyping,” “threatening, intimidating or hostile acts,” and “denigrating jokes.”

In fairness to the university, it does include (unlike some universities) a rejected subjectivity as the basis for complaints:

“An individual’s subjective belief that behavior is intimidating, hostile, or offensive, in and of itself, is not sufficient to establish Discrimination or Harassment. The behavior must create a hostile environment from both a subjective and objective perspective such that it unreasonably interferes with, limits, or deprives a member of the university community of the ability to participate in or to receive benefits, services, or opportunities from the university’s education or employment programs and/or activities.”

The policy, however, includes microaggressions that can result in action if there is a pattern.

“Minor verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, annoyances, insults or isolated incidents including, but not limited to microaggressions, are not sufficient to establish Discrimination or Harassment. However, if such incidents keep happening over time and are targeting a Protected Class, they can constitute Discrimination or Harassment in violation of this Policy.”

We have previously discussed microaggression policies and the free speech concerns raised by this ill-defined and highly subjective concept. Notably, a professor at the University of North Texas just won a critical motion in his case involving criticism of microaggression policies.

Free speech demands bright lines to avoid a chilling effect on speech. The new policy however is sweeping in its terms:

“Examples of Harassment include, but are not limited to: epithets or slurs, negative stereotyping, threatening, intimidating or hostile acts, denigrating jokes and display or circulation (including through e-mail or virtual platforms) of written or graphic material in the learning, living, or working environment.”

The most concerning terms are how “negative stereotyping, . . . intimidating or hostile act, denigrating joke” are defined.  Since graphic material are include, it would likely include cartoons or other material containing such challenged views or comments.

A recent poll found that 65 percent of students feel that they cannot speak freely on campuses. Another poll at the University of North Carolina found that conservative students are 300 times more likely to self-censor themselves due to the intolerance of opposing views on our campuses. In a relatively short time, faculty and administrators have destroyed the status of campuses as bastions of free speech. Students now expect less freedom of speech in higher education where a new orthodoxy and speech intolerance has taken hold.

It is a death knell for our higher education, particularly at private universities, which are not directly impacted by First Amendment protections. The anti-free speech movement is making public universities the last line of defense for those struggling to preserve forums for free speech.

If this trend continues, students interested in seeking higher education without losing free speech rights may have to increasingly look to public universities. As someone who has taught at private universities for almost four decades, that would be a sad result not just for higher education but the country as a whole.

Here is the complaint: Speech First v. Khatur

139 thoughts on “University of Houston Students Sue Over Campus Speech Code”

  1. Paul,

    Our mileage varies. Something’s we’ll have to agree to disagree. Birtherism was participated by Conservatives. That was mighty hateful.

    1. There was a status quo. Like it or not, some pushed for the status quo to be changed. That was not the conservative movement. Instead, it was top-heavy leftists and others. They brought a non-federal issue (the ‘wrong case’ ) before the Supreme Court, so the SC should have declined to hear it. Barring a different claim, the issue of abortion should have been left to the states where it always had been.

      Your poorly placement of the statement “mighty hateful” should not have been made. One can see from your rhetoric that such a statement reflects your attitude that intentionally wishes to stick a finger into another’s eye. “Mighty hateful” is you, Jeff Silberman.

      My statement doesn’t reflect any specific feelings on the issue. Instead, I am solely discussing a Constitutional issue where nine persons created a law that didn’t represent the people in the various states. Not one state acted similarly to the court before the decision.

    2. Jeff, We will have to agree to disagree. And Birtherism was wrong. But I actually left out a liberal trait that you seem to make it your life’s work to point out. HYPOCRISY! The pandemic brought into full view the hypocrisy of the left. With the absolutely insulting excuses to match. From the Pelosi going to a boutique ( I was set up), to London Breed going maskless at a concert ( I was feeling the spirit), to Mayor Garcetti without a mask at a football game , my personal favorite, ( I was holding my breath), to the most recent picture of many in the WH without masks to celebrate Jackson’s nomination, ( It was an historic event). This is one smart virus. Conservatives have voiced many undesirable opinions. But at least they are not rampant hypocrites like liberals.

      1. Paul,

        You left out Governor Newsom at my favorite restaurant, The French Laundry.

        I could point out hypocrisy on the Right- Cruz, Graham, Rubio, etc. Hypocrisy afflicts everyone- Left and Right- even our esteemed Professor Turley.

        1. Jeff, thank you for pointing out my omission. I stand corrected. But I don’t remember Cruz, Graham Rubio imposing MANDATES on their constituents. Which they themselves later ignored.
          Could you please list them for me?

          1. I was referring to their calling Trump a nutcase during the presidential primary and later kissing his ass.

            1. Jeff, you are comparing a benign comment to a primary rival to MANDATE hypocrisy? And funny you should go down that road. Kamala basically called Biden a racist on the primary debate stage and he picked her for V.P !! And she accepted. Hypocrisy personified!!

              1. Paul,

                When did I ever say that hypocrisy is limited to Conservatives? Hypocrisy is everywhere- politics definitely- media certainly- on this blog absolutely.

  2. Iowan says:

    “Because a law professor invited by students into Yale Law School to debate free speech issues, is EXACTLY like a book for kindergartners explaining lesbian sex.”

    You said it; not I.

  3. Iowan2 says:

    “So no censoring. Simple, rational, utterly common, free choice.”

    Exactly. Libraries discriminate in favor of rational books as do Universities and colleges discriminate in favor of rational guest speakers. All institutions must curate because there is not enough room in the stacks to shelve every book nor time of the day to audition every would-be speaker.

    1. Your Trump hate, forces you to rationalize crazy, and leads you into terrible analogies.
      To compare the books in a K- 12 library, to speakers invited onto a collage campus, populated by adults whose claimed goal is expansion and investigation of ideas, and to learn to debate contentious ideologies, just magnifies how you rationalize your warped thinking and faulty conclusions.

      Because a law professor invited by students into Yale Law School to debate free speech issues, is EXACTLY like a book for kindergartners explaining lesbian sex.

      See what I mean about being forced into stupid conclusions?

  4. An individual is entitled by law to sue another individual into potential bankruptcy for defaming them by lying (or being indifferent to the truth) on the premise that the libeler damaged the victim’s reputation. The consequences of being sued into oblivion is damn chilling upon a person’s freedom of speech, is it not? But we accept it.

    Why then do we object to a person’s freedom of speech being likewise chilled by his being shamed, ostracized and de-platformed for lying (or being indifferent to the truth) though he does not actually damage an individual’s reputation? Is not protecting the public square from equally damaging lies as important as protecting peoples’ reputations? Since the government is prohibited from doing so (except in specific situations) who will?

    “Freedom of speech” does not mean freedom from ALL consequences. It means only freedom from incarceration or a punitive fine which is all that a government has the power to do to its citizens. Because the First Amendment applies against government, Turley posits the freedom of speech as a human value. As such, I don’t advocate rudely heckling an individual’s act of lying so long as I can shun, stigmatize and boycott that speaker after the fact as an exercise of my freedom.

  5. Jonathan: This post is another of a long series of columns trying to argue that the free speech rights of of conservative students, and only conservatives, are under attack. Your oft-cited anecdotal examples hardly prove your case. In fact these cases are few and far between. But you cling to them as part of a larger political agenda. Corporate right-wing giants, like the Koch Bros. are funding a variety of so-called “free speech” groups, like the Goldwater Institute, ALEC, FIRE, Speech First and others, who are filing lawsuits on behalf of conservative university students to change policies regarding free expression and substitute their own. Speech Free says its goal is to end the “toxic censorship culture on college campuses”. The lawsuit by Speech First against the University of Houston is a prime example. Speech First and similar groups want to abolish speech codes, prevent the disinvitation of right-wing speakers and impose penalties on anyone who protests their presence .It’s a stealth campaign that will actually harm campus free expression.

    And what do the Koch Bros., “Speech Free” and aligned groups really want? They have manufactured a free speech “crisis” to push their own political/economic agenda–to stop what they call the “socialist” and “Marxist” dominance on university campuses. Instead, they are pushing their own anti-environment, anti-immigration, anti-consumer and anti-labor rights agenda. They want universities to adopt more “free-market” friendly views to counter liberal and “leftist” academic studies. They want law schools to groom the next generation of conservative judges to rubber stamp corporate friendly legislation. These groups do this under cover of the “culture wars”, i.e., fights over abortion rights, immigration, gay marriage and other LGBTQ issues, religious freedom, and critical race theory.

    If you look at the Speech Free complaint “Student A” (none of the complaining students are identified) demands the right to talk to fellow classmates about these issues “to point out the flaws in their arguments and convince them to change their minds” (see p. 12 of complaint). How “Student A” is going to “convince” those opposed to his/her “arguments” the complaint doesn’t say. Presumably, classmates will be forced to sit and listen. That’s how bizarre the complaint devolves into. “Student B” believes pay disparities between men and women are a “straightforward consequence of the free market” and laws “mandating identical pay for men and women are “absurd, unfair and distort labor markets…”. This is a page right of the Koch playbook. And you support these “absurd” claims” in the name of “free speech”.

    I would be more sympathetic if you were really an absolutist advocate for free expression. But you are not. You are absolutely silent when it comes to other the more serious threats to free expression. In GOP controlled states laws have been passed to ban the teaching of critical race theory. In 20 states there are restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. In Florida GOP Gov. DeSantis signed a bill against the “indoctrination” in public schools. In other states like Texas and Tennessee books are being banned from school libraries. If freedom of expression is central to the pursuit of knowledge and truth then it must apply across the board–not just to conservatives. That is the essential flaw in your argument.

    1. In other states like Texas and Tennessee books are being banned from school libraries.

      A standard leftist lie.

      Few libraries can shelve every book in print. All libraries curate their inventory.

      School libraries are especially cognizant of the purpose books are on the shelves. And since the parents are the customers, parents input into what the children have available to read is toward the top of the criteria for choosing what is on the shelves.

      So no censoring. Simple, rational, utterly common, free choice.

  6. Higher education is as credible as CNN.

    CNN = Connoisseur of Censorship & Nefarious misinformation


  7. April 9, 1865: the defeated remnants of the Confederacy surrender at Appomattox courthouse. A date worth celebrating.

    1. So true, if one agrees that it is a legitimate act to disobey statutory and fundamental law with which one disagrees.

      If “Crazy Abe” Lincoln and his criminal gang of successors had the opportunity to violate every form of law in America, so do Americans in the current era.

      In a society of laws, members of the society must obey the laws.

      If “Crazy Abe” could defy the law then, actual Americans may ignore it now, with full legitimacy.

      Supporting the criminal behavior of Lincoln makes one, similarly, a criminal.

      1. Sadly Democrats have waged a war on Americans yet again, complete with enslaving hispanics, blacks, asians, homosexuals, every single minority group by corralling them into identity politics.

        The US Civil War of 1850s is back again as a US Civil War 2.0, because the Democrats cant stand anyone being free. They really are hooked on berating, subjugating and controlling people


        “Joe Rogan says liberals spray ‘mental illness’ like ‘diarrhea all over the screen’ and slams Democrats for treating politics like they’re rooting for sports teams on Twitter”

        1. It is truly ironic, Patricia, that you addressed your comment to George, who is a white nationalist. Perhaps you didn’t know. He also wants women to lose the right to vote, no doubt you agree. (sarc)

          1. As the indispensible Mark Steyn points out, “the process is the punishment”. Yes, the prosecutor lied. Yes, the Democrats are trying to convert a mostly peaceful protest into their Reichstag moment. Yes the Democrats are fascists. Yes, the guy was acquitted.

            But two years of the guy’s life was destroyed because Democrat fascism now rules.

            And this is just the start of it. Wait until you are put in jail for driving a car on a vacation, because you acted to “destroy the planet”. Because Democrats are Nazis

          2. Why shouldn’t Patricia address her comment to George? Why do you have to explain what you think of George? I guess that is your right.

            OK, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Patricia, this anonymous is known as Anonymous the Stupid, and you can call him that like some others do. He is also known by his initials, ATS. He lies, twists words, and is not a credible person.

            1. Patricia was spot on. The Act Blue troll proved her point, i.e.

              “The US Civil War of 1850s is back again as a US Civil War 2.0, because the Democrats cant stand anyone being free. They really are hooked on berating, subjugating and controlling people”


              Joe Rogan wasnt too far off the mark either, and again, proving Patricia’s point

              “…liberals spray ‘mental illness’ like ‘diarrhea all over the screen’ and slams Democrats for treating politics like they’re rooting for sports teams on Twitter”

              Never allow your adversary to frame the argument.

            2. You are the one and only Anonymous the Stupid, aka Meyer the Troll Liar.

              1. Does it make you unhappy when someone does to you what you do to the blog?

  8. A public university must adhere to the free speech provision in the Constitution.

    A private university may restrict speech on its private property.

    No person may deter or disrupt proceedings on campus.

    A person who uses speech, such as the “n” word, is not initiating disruptive activities; the person reacting poorly to free speech, such as the “n” word, is initiating disruptive activities.

    Affirmative action and bias favoring minorities is unconstitutional.

  9. I have recently come across this blog and I am following with interest the posts (by both author and audience) around limits to free speech in various forms, including for instance coerced speech. An example of the latter involved a Russian soprano who was dropped from the current Metropolitan Opera season (this blog, about a month ago:

    Somewhat related -coming from opera circles as well- I incidentally found this case:

    “Critics want to shutter a new opera about Emmett Till. Here’s what its creators say”:

    In particular, the article includes the following: “A petition with over 12,000 signatures — and counting — called for the opera to never see the light of day.”, with that hyperlink pointing to ‘Cancel “A New American Opera: Emmett Till” at John Jay College’ ( .

    I am posting these references matter-of-factly, not making any judgement, as I thought it might interest others as well.

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