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Federal District Court Blocks University of Houston Harassment Policy

The University of Houston’s policy stated students could be disciplined for subjecting other students to “unlawful severe, pervasive, or persistent treatment” based on their race, color, gender, age, religion, or sexual orientation. Possible penalties under the policy included probation, suspension, or expulsion. The University’s anti-discrimination policy had been in effect since 2021 to ensure 70,000+ students, staff, and faculty have “access to an environment free from unlawful discrimination and harassment.”

Speech First, a nonprofit organization, sought a preliminary injunction, on behalf of three self-identified conservative students-members. They assert the policy stifles their free speech. The organization argued the University’s definition was too broad because it included “negative stereotyping” and “denigrating jokes,” which are protected free speech. The students said they are reluctant to express their opinions because of the policy. A federal district court in Texas agreed. The court looked to a prior Fifth Circuit decision (also brought by Speech First) where the appellate court issued a preliminary injunction to provide students “defenses against arbitrary professors.” The judge also stated the First Amendment is “not guidance – it is the law.”

The University of Houston changed its policy by more narrowly defining harassment shortly before the district court issued its injunction. It said its policy now treats students differently than employees. The court went ahead with the injunction because the school could change its mind.