Former professor files free speech lawsuit against Collin College over tweets about Mike Pence
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A year ago, Texas history professor Lora Burnett launched an angry tweet from her private social media account about then-vice president Mike Pence. He landed during the vice presidential debate, prompting media coverage from conservative media, an angry response from at least one Texas lawmaker, and a series of disciplinary actions from his employer, the state-funded Collin College, in northern Texas.
This week, Burnett, who was ultimately fired from her job at Collin College, a community college in McKinney, filed a federal lawsuit against the college, its president, H. Neil Matkin, and the board of directors.
In Tuesday’s filing, she claims the school’s decision not to renew her three-year contract was retaliation for those comments, as well as her public criticism of the school’s COVID-19 plan to reopen, and violated his First Amendment rights.
In his lawsuit, Burnett argues that the leaders of Collin College use “a custom or practice of dismissing professors who speak out on matters of public interest” and that the school’s practices are unconstitutional.
“Government employees have the right to have their own policy,” Burnett told the Texas Tribune in an interview this week. “I express my point of view on Twitter in my spare time on a personal account and it has nothing to do with my work. I wasn’t speaking for college. I wasn’t teaching at the time.
Burnett is the second former professor to file a free speech complaint against the college in federal court in the past two months. In September, another former teacher, Suzanne Jones, filed a complaint claiming the school had not renewed her contract due to her comments on the school’s COVID-19 plan to reopen and her involvement in a local chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a state group that has no collective bargaining rights like a union.
Jones declined the Texas Tribune’s request for comment.
Matkin declined a request for an interview through a spokesperson for the university.
“While it is unfortunate that a former faculty member has chosen to take legal action, the College remains firmly committed to our faculty review process and looks forward to defending our actions in court.” , said Marisela Cadena-Smith in the statement. She said the college would not comment further on the pending litigation.
The two lawsuits are the culmination of more than a year of conflict between Collin College administrators and a total of four faculty who have also publicly criticized the school for its COVID-19 response throughout the past school year. Only Burnett and Jones decided to continue.
A third teacher, Audra Heaslip, also did not receive a contract renewal last year. She told the Tribune that she made a “difficult personal decision” not to sue college.
A fourth teacher remains employed at the school but received a disciplinary warning from the college in August for criticizing his response to the pandemic on social media, according to Burnett’s filing.
Collin College, a community college that serves more than 52,000 students in northeast Dallas, has come under fire for disciplining faculty for their public comments on the school’s COVID-19 response over the past year.
Burnett and others had criticized Matkin for downplaying the severity of the pandemic and for management’s lack of transparency regarding positive cases on campus. The school did not publicly release the number of COVID cases on campus until after an employee and student died from the virus.
For Burnett, disciplinary action began soon after October 7, 2020, the night of the vice presidential debate when she tweeted on her private account that the moderator should “talk about Mike Pence until he shuts down his little one. demon mouth “. She retweeted another user’s tweet calling Pence a “lying motherfucker.”
Conservative media used the tweets in an article about college professors’ criticism of Pence in the debate. The tweets also caught the attention of Texas Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. According to a copy of a text message obtained by Burnett’s attorney, Leach reached out to Matkin to ask if Burnett had been paid with taxpayer money. Matkin confirmed that she was and said he was “aware of the situation and that he would deal with it” and that she was already on his “radar”.
Burnett’s attorney, Greg Greubel, who works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the college spent $ 14,000 on legal fees to try to prevent the text message from being published through an open case request.
Matkin wrote a letter to the professors saying they had been contacted by “university constituents” about the professors’ tweets on the debate, and that they were not going to “publicly carry out his personnel policies. A note Burnet said she interpreted to mean disciplinary action was imminent.
Eventually, Burnett received a warning letter, known as the “Employee Coaching Form,” reminding him not to use Collin College resources for private or personal conversations, including email. According to the lawsuit, Burnett interpreted the warning as an attempt to punish her for speaking publicly about matters of public interest.
In mid-February, Burnett saw a tweet from Leach saying she had been fired, which he called in his Twitter post a “BIG WIN,” the lawsuit says. When she replied to Leach that she had not been fired, the state representative responded with the image of a clock ticking. Leach did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Burnett’s lawsuit also states that nine days later the college informed her that her contract would not be renewed for “subordination, publication of private personnel issues that interfere with college operations, and personal criticism from colleagues, supervisors and / or those who simply disagree with you. Burnett said the college did not provide specific examples of how she violated college staff policies. She lodged an internal appeal, which was rejected.
Burnett seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Jones claims in his lawsuit that his contract was not renewed due to his comments on social media about the school’s COVID-19 plan, but also two previous incidents.
The first took place in 2017, when Jones signed a petition to remove Confederate statues from a Dallas park and wrote there that she was a professor at Collin College. At the time, the school asked him to remove the college name from his signature. Jones said in her lawsuit she was never warned that signing the document in this way risked her job.
Jones’ lawsuit says a printed copy of that interaction was slipped into her employment record last year, at the same time as she pushed back the school’s COVID-19 plan to reopen through her work at school faculty council.
The second time Jones was asked to remove her affiliation with Collin College from public record was last year while she was working to launch the college chapter of the Texas Faculty Association. His lawsuit says Collin’s dean of academic affairs asked him to remove a reference to the school from his contact details on the TFA website.
In January, Jones learned that his contract would not be renewed, despite a positive assessment of his performance the previous school year. According to the lawsuit, a human resources official told him his contract would not be renewed due to his criticism of the COVID-19 plan and the inclusion of the college’s name on public sites.
Matkin and former vice president Toni Jenkins told Jones their decision was based on Jones’ public comments regarding the reopening of Collin College and its affiliation with TFA, a group they do not see as a group with which Collin College “celebrates and encourages affiliation with …”, the lawsuit reads.
Jones seeks reinstatement as well as compensatory and punitive damages against Matkin and Jenkins.