Collin College, a public community college northeast of Dallas – subject to the First Amendment – has faced criticism for reprimanding their professors for public comments and opinions, especially in the last year due to the school’s response to COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Texas History Professor Lora Burnett, filed a federal lawsuit against the college, its president, H. Neil Matkin, and the board of trustees. Claiming the school’s decision to not renew her three-year contract was payback for angry comments she tweeted a year ago about former Vice President Mike Pence, as well as her public criticism of the school’s COVID-19 reopening plan.
In her lawsuit, Burnett argues that Collin College leaders use “a custom or practice of terminating professors who speak out on matters of public concern”, stating the school’s practices are unconstitutional and violate the First Amendment.
According to The Texas Tribune, Burnett’s disciplinary actions began Oct. 7, 2020, the night of the vice-presidential debate when she tweeted on her private account that the moderator should “talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” She retweeted another user’s tweet calling Pence a “scumbag lying sonofabitch”.
The tweet was used in an article by a conservative outlet about college faculty’s criticism of Pence in the debate, and also caught the attention of Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano.
Even though the college spent $14,000 in legal fees trying to keep a text message exchange from Leach and Matkin from being released, Burnett’s attorney obtained a copy. In the messages, Leach asked Matkin if Burnett was paid with taxpayer dollars, to which Matkin confirmed she was and stated she was on his “radar” and that he was “aware of the situation and would deal with it”.
Burnett’s lawsuit also states that nine days later the college did indeed “deal with it”, informing her they would not renew her contract – despite receiving a positive performance review the previous school year – for “subordination, making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations, and personal criticisms of co-workers, supervisors, and/or those who merely disagree with you.” The Texas Tribune reported the college failed to provide specific examples as to how she violated the college’s personal policies.
Before being fired, “Burnett was surprised to see that Rep. Leach tweeted Burnett had been terminated, which he characterized as a ‘BIG WIN’,” the lawsuit notes. Since Collin College had not informed Burnett of said termination, she responded to Leach she had in fact not been fired, to which Leach responded with an image of a ticking clock, implying her time at Collin College was limited Alleging numerous First Amendment claims and violations of the Civil Rights Act, Burnett is suing for her job back, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
Burnett addressed her firing in a statement, “Professors like me shouldn’t lose our jobs just because we have opinions. In the classroom, my job is to teach the material and to hold open a space where students can freely express themselves and fully engage with the ideas we’re talking about. Outside the classroom, I have the right to express myself too. I have the right to fully engage with any public debate. That right is for all of us, not just for professors whose politics match up with their college administrators.”
Burnett is not the first professor to file a free-speech lawsuit against the college, in September, Suzanne Jones, another former professor, filed a lawsuit claiming the school did not renew her contract because of her comments about the school’s COVID-19 reopening plan.
These two lawsuits are the climax of more than a year of conflict between Collin College and a total of four professors who have also publicly criticized the school.
“While it is regrettable that a former faculty member has chosen to file a lawsuit, the College stands firm in our belief in our faculty review process and looks forward to defending our actions in court,” said Marisela Cadena-Smith, assistant director of public relations at Collin College, as reported by The Texas Tribune.