Guest Commentary Opinion

Guest Column: VP sanctions violate US, SGA Constitutions

Photo by Trey Strange

Student Government Association President Shane Smith’s sanctions on his vice president has made national news. | Trey Strange/The Cougar

Students have rightly expressed their outrage over Student Government Association Vice President Rohini Sethi’s comment on Facebook. It displayed a disregard for the societal issues giving rise to the disproportionate number of African-Americans being killed by police officers.

As the French philosopher Voltaire has famously said, however, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

This fundamental understanding of the right to express is one of the underpinnings of our great republic: All opinions, particularly unpopular ones, have some value and can contribute to the marketplace of ideas.

It is one of the primary reasons our Founding Fathers adopted the First Amendment as the most paramount of rights. I believe it is apparent that Sethi’s constitutional right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment has been violated.

The argument that the First Amendment doesn’t apply in this situation because the Student Government Association is not a governmental entity ignores case law. The Eleventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that student governments of state universities are, in fact, state actors for the purpose of both the First and Fourteenth Amendments in Alabama Student Party v. Student Government Association of the University of Alabama.

When I served as Speaker of the Senate during the 41st Administration, I worked on a committee which proposed integrating all rights contained in the U.S. and Texas Constitutions into the SGA Constitution.  Today, that provision exists as Section 2.01 of the SGA Constitution.

This leaves us with whether the sanctions themselves infringed on Sethi’s right to free speech.  Some have argued that, as an elected official in SGA, Sethi has an obligation to refrain from making statements that would reflect badly on or in any way interfere with the work of the organization. Not true.

Sethi does not waive her constitutional rights upon taking the oath of office.  If she stood up in the middle of an SGA meeting and started disrupting it with offensive statements — yes, she could’ve been punished.

Her offending statement in this case, nevertheless, was made on her personal Facebook. It did not in any way invoke SGA or even involve an issue concerning SGA.  It was purely political speech, and such speech is highly protected under the U.S. Constitution.

What is even more concerning to me as an attorney is that the SGA Senate decided to pass a bill creating a one-time ability for SGA President Shane Smith to sanction Sethi.

In essence, the SGA Senate passed what is called a “bill of attainder,” which were used for abusive purposes by the British Parliament in the 18th century. Our Founding Fathers then prohibited them in Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution.

For the SGA, however, the greater worry here is the violation of the separation of powers contained within the SGA Constitution.  Only the judicial branch is given the power to adjudicate disputes such as these, and giving the SGA President the power to punish a fellow member of the executive Branch creates an extraordinarily dangerous precedent.

It also undermines the due process afforded to someone in a trial.

One does not need to agree with what Sethi said to be concerned about a violation of her rights.

While the rest of SGA may find it difficult, politically, to handle this situation by balancing the concerns of students and Sethi’s rights, this is precisely the sort of situation where the preservation of a person’s rights are most important.

Bobby L. Warren is a licensed attorney-at-law and an alumnus from the UH Law Center Class of 2005. He can be reached at [email protected].


  • Loved the Voltaire quote about giving up his life for peeps he detests to write what they want. Evidently, that’s the complete opposite of what BLM believes … and Shane Smith … and the SGA can easily be proclaimed BLM lapdogs.

    BLMers have no tolerance for non-BLM speak. They took advantage of the gullibility of the SGA. Shane Smith, who should have called for a “period of calm” to let emotions settle down before taking any action; instead launched a BLM backed witch hunt against Rohini,

    Did the SGA think there sanctions weren’t going to be talked about outside UH circles? Did the SGA even read their own Constitution for guidance in this affair? Was legal counsel even thought of being consulted to at least check the legality of their planned actions and possible consequences to their actions? So many Progressives are easily bought into the idea that what their think is what the majority of Americans think. That’s far from the truth.

    Great piece Bobby. Very well thought out and presented, and is one of the final nails in the SGA coffin on these lower than a snakes belly actions.

  • I guess your life don’t matter Shane Idiot Smith! Remember that the next time you need to the 1st Amendment to protect your speech.

  • Following in the exact same footsteps of the past leave us repeating history.
    My opinion on Voltaire’s philosophy is that it stops short of an understanding of compassion. Saying what you want, you can do. Thinking that justifies you not being responsible for how you are perceived or affect another person believing what you say as well as your actions in my opinion is believing that rude comments deserve immunity for the hrm they can cause. This “libtard” and “treasonous” university as it’s been called by people with a similar nit-picky rendition of law and precedent is trying to include the later. Why can’t we all get along? Cause there are people who do not know how to do so. They refuse to want to see the aftermath of what they say as caused by them. Not a fault, since that seems like guilt and responsibility, but just a chronological series of events.

    I genuinely mean this in a way that asks that the ‘apparent violation’ of Rohini’s 1st amendment right be explained to me. Like I felt, she said something as she can. And people said something back which they can. It seemed like the turmoil of having only people who care about their opinion but not the affects of them. She made some people angry because of fear and disappointment and feeling dismissed and then people did the same back making Rohini scared and herself admittedly in an interview was affected by their reactions. “People who don’t know me..” was her response to how she said she was affected in little over a week.

    Using her personal Facebook does not mean she represents the mission of SGA however it is a representation of her. This new and current technological age is more interconnected and appearance is identity. She “displayed a disregard” which is included in this opinion column. To most of the current generation who you are online and present to the world is who you more or less really are or an aspect of you that is genuine of what you think, believe, or interest you. Dismissing social media, a place of free speech, as not a valid judge of what someone wants to say or what they believe seems to cancel out to someone, myself, who admittedly does look at what someone prioritizes as a reflection of their character.

    To agree with the opinion writer I don’t have to agree with the post that offended many, myself included, to care about whether her right was violated. But that courtesy should again in my opinion be a reciprocal action. Just cause people don’t agree with the BlackLivesMatter Movement over the ALM hashtag that the evident ” disproportionate number of African-Americans being killed by police officers” doesn’t mean that their right to assembly should be ignored, silenced, or used as a scare tactic for those so uninvolved and unconcerned with the concerns of others.

    Also repeating my initial response of not needing to follow in the footsteps of our past to avoid repeating history using the “bill of attainder” as a reason to doubt the actions of SGA doesn’t seem to be solid, by that I mean a logic to be consistently applied to similar situations. Just cause British Parliament was abusive doesn’t mean utilizing the practice of the bill was intended for abuse in this instance. But , I’m not well versed in all of that so I concede to the professional.

    To stop being so long winded, the past is suppose to guide us and not define us and I believe the actions of the SGA, Rohini, and the people affected by this situation are steps to a different future and not repeating the bad things.

    Secondly and I felt too drained to go into the irony of saying that due process should be afforded to all and that preservation of a person’s rights is important and yet feeling like this opinion column more or less dismissed the point of outrage by ignoring that BLM wants those two things while ALM just likes to believe that they already are. Also calling them political speech felt dismissive of the affects of this debate. As mentioned they are contributions to the “marketplace of ideas.” So do they matter or are they just words again. When will we learn the consequences and affects part?

    • Not only am I not dismissing the concerns of BLM (my article is focused solely on the question of whether the action taken by SGA was constitutional), but anyone who is concerned with the violation of rights of African-Americans by police officers in this country should also be concerned about the violation of Ms. Sethi’s rights as well. All of these incidents, in varying degrees, involve our constitutional rights as U.S. citizens.

      Also, in no way have I suggested that those who were offended by Ms. Sethi’s statement should not have the right to peacefully assemble, make their grievances known, or call for her to step down. Instead, I have argued that Ms. Sethi has a constitutional right to make those statements without being punished for those statements by the SGA, which is legally a “state actor” for the purpose of application of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

      When we begin to devalue the rights of others because they “offend” or “insult” us is when we begin to devalue everyone’s rights.

      • I do not know the SGA laws and why consequences are not permitted. That is where my confusion starts. I will say that I don’t understand how the sanctions equal to a punishment. Sanctions sound less severe. Punishment sounds harsh. I felt that the sanctions were fair in that it is simply a month and a few weeks were she doesn’t have a solid hold over the title of Vice President of SGA. It isn’t a school suspension so her grades are not affected. Then since her speech seems culturally insensitive she simply has to show efforts of being more immersed in them for her own self gain. Reflection and sharing to be followed.

        I do apologize for my inability so far to understand the violation of her right. I only see a consequence of her using her right. Like I said before I personally don’t see why people think just saying what they want and not caring for what happens after is something to defend the speech and ignore the following actions. That I personally do not understand.

        I am obviously not trying to contest to you or anyone that her right to free speech means nothing.

        So in trying to understand where her opinion is devalued is again where this double backlash situation confuses me. Her opinion favored ALM. Some people, mostly university students from what I saw, disagreed. Then the SGA asked her to complete a set of actions in what you are calling a punishment and what I see as consequences. I’m left to see that the law is calling them a punishment and am also left to think differently of the law yet would adhere to it despite how I feel against people not having accountability for their actions. Her opinion being the triggering action in this case. I hope I explained my confusion in a way that you do not mind clarifying.

        I’d rather understand than be confused. I am trying to listen as well.

        • @A.A., you should go find some elderly mainland Chinese intellectuals to explain how Shane Smith and UH/SGA have very precisely reproduced the disgusting terrors of the Cultural Revolution when seeming dissidents were rounded up and forced to undergo self criticism and then re-education before being sent off for years at a stretch to labor in mines and quarries to disabuse them of their anti revolutionary thoughts by the Maoist Communist party operatives. The distance from Beijing to Houston has shrunk tremendously.

        • Listen? For all the verbiage, it all boils down to one simple factor; on any college campus today, leftist socialist ideology vilifies light skinned people (and especially conservative thinkers) for the radical and malevolent act of being born with light skin. Light skinned people are allowed to be stereotyped, demonized, terrorized, physically assaulted (Dartmouth library, Mizzou quad and on and on), sanctioned, punished, separated, berated and all with some measure of faculty and administrative support for the attackers and racists. But the hate speech from the likes of BLM and BSU groups on the campus is okay? Not to be censored or punished or even criticized?
          But then any student, even a non-white, non-black minority female of immigrant descent, who diverges from the race hate playbook, is to be pilloried in a scandalous public mockery of “government action and process”? And by immature youngsters all playing dress up, with fancy titles they don’t comprehend or take seriously.
          If she has no right to free speech, then the BSUs and other race based hate groups on the college campus today don’t either. You can’t have it both ways no matter how hard you want it or how you dress it up.

    • “I genuinely mean this in a way that asks that the ‘apparent violation’ of Rohini’s 1st amendment right be explained to me.”

      The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. In generalized layman’s terms, the government cannot stop a person from stating their opinions, nor can the government punish a person for the content of their statements (with exceptions for violating, or advocating the violation of, the law). The First Amendment originally constrained the federal government and the Fourteenth Amendment extended that constraint to the States.

      The State of Texas created and delegated limited powers to the University of Houston which, in turn, created and delegated limited powers to the Student Government Association. Constitutional constraints on Texas flow through to its creations. As an example, Texas could not side-step the First Amendment by creating a Commission to Punish Unpopular Speech.

      Government -federal, state, or a “state actor” like the SGA- cannot punish Rohini simply for making offensive or unpopular statements. If the First Amendment did not prohibit such government action, the civil rights movement would most assuredly have been silenced in its infancy.

  • The author started out with a lie – to quote: “giving rise to the disproportionate number of African Americans being killed by police officers”! Not true…. He also totally misquoted Voltaire. It reads like this – “I may not agree with a thing you say, but I will defend into the death your right to say it!”

  • Another ridiculous American university. Good lord, I hope potential employers read these student newspapers, and avoid hiring any of you snowflakes. I have been a university professor for 30 years. Thank goodness I teach at an institution where you SJWs would be laughed off campus.

  • One’s civil rights include freedom for punishment by the government, in this case a state university, for expressing opinions – especially opinions on political issues. The ignorance of the University’s students and administration on this issue is astounding. , especially as If she gets a lawyer, the U is toast and administrators heads will rolll – as they should. Shame ! That the Rump should be ignorant is one thing, but an entire university ? !

  • The president could have admonished her by making a speech before the student government assembly. He could have submitted an opinion piece to the Daily Cougar. He could have tweeted his disapproval. He could have asked a coalition of members to draft a letter of criticism. If he had any aptitude for politics he would have turned it to his advantage. Instead he marshaled his executive power to formally humiliate another student representative, flying in the face of the US constitution. Now, instead of having a constructive dialogue about the dubiousness of #AllLivesMatter in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we’re talking about a nasty case of institutional censorship. Way to go Shane Smith! Great job humiliating everyone at our school you petty, petty tool.

    • Or, the “president” could have acknowledged that the young woman is correct, and that “Black Lives Matter” is a racist initiative, and the all lives do indeed matter (even those of racists).

  • BTW, I’d like to thank Mr. Warren for this. In all the ongoing intellectual censorship and sterilization going today on the US college campus, it’s encouraging to see at least one or two voices of sanity come out of the cannon smoke.
    As a retired combat veteran, former resident of Denton, Waco and Houston, it’s deeply disturbing to me to see the depths to which higher education has fallen. It’s hard to understand how any human at college age, enrolled in college and esp. faculty, can believe that only thoughts and beliefs they agree with are exempt from censorship and only those with which they disagree have no protection. It makes me question not only how these faculty can hold a job, and the students can maintain high enough grades to stay in school, but how their brains can generate enough electrical energy to allow them to move, eat, breathe and communicate.

  • Could someone please find out why the entire U of H SGA hasn’t been arrested/prosecuted for violating Rohini Sethi’s rights?

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