Fired for Tweeting About Mike Pence?

Two former faculty members sue Collin College, saying they were let go for criticizing the college’s COVID-19 response and otherwise exercising their right to free expression.

October 27, 2021
 
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Two former professors at Collin College in Texas are suing the institution and its president, H. Neil Matkin, among other administrators, for alleged violations of the First Amendment.

In separate lawsuits, plaintiffs L. D. Burnett, former professor of history, and Suzanne Jones, former professor of education, say that Collin cut ties with them after they exercised their right to free expression, including by criticizing the college’s COVID-19 response. Burnett also criticized former vice president Mike Pence on Twitter, while Jones promoted the new campus chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a voluntary faculty group without collective bargaining power.

The legal cases are the latest black eyes for Collin, which has faced public scrutiny within the last year for its actions against Burnett and Jones, and against a third former professor, Audra Heaslip, who was let go from her humanities professorship after she criticized Collin’s pandemic reopening plan. Like Jones, Heaslip had also participated in the new faculty group.

Collin doesn’t have a tenure system but full-time professors who have served three years may be reappointed on multiyear contracts.

Burnett’s lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, says, “Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Defendants have used their lack-of-tenure ‘system’ to implement an unconstitutional policy of terminating or disciplining professors who speak out on matters of public concern.”

Marisela Cadena-Smith, a Collin spokesperson, said that while it’s “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.”

Heaslip said Tuesday that she’d made the “difficult personal decision” to enter into an agreement with Collin not to sue it. But she said her former colleagues -- including those still working at Collin -- have her full support.

“I was able to move away from the toxic environment at Collin, and that has done wonders for my health,” she said. “I do worry about the physical and mental health of my colleagues who still work there, though, and I only hope they will find some peace and respite going forward.”

The American Association of University Professors is currently investigating Collin for alleged indifference toward academic freedom and norms of shared governance. It says it won’t have much to say about that investigation until the two lawsuits are resolved.

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Joshua Bleisch, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is helping represent Burnett, said in a statement, “It seems as though Collin College is surprised to learn that, like the rest of us, professors have thoughts on the issues up for public debate. The First Amendment ensures they can share those opinions, even if Collin College prefers they stay silent.”

A Promise to ‘Deal With’ a Professor

Burnett’s lawsuit alleges that Collin gave in to public pressure to effectively terminate her after she referred to Pence as a “demon” twice on Twitter during the 2020 vice presidential debate and said Pence’s eye looked like it was “bleeding” (Pence’s eye was very red during the debate). She also retweeted someone else’s comment calling Pence a “scumbag lying sonofabitch.” Matkin, Collin’s president, condemned the tweets on a faculty Listserv after they caught public attention. According to text messages that Burnett obtained via records requests, Matkin also promised Jeff Leach, a Republican state representative, that he would “deal with” the situation and that Burnett was already on his “radar” after Leach contacted him to ask if Burnett was paid with taxpayer dollars.

Collin apparently spent $14,000 trying to keep the text messages private in an unsuccessful legal battle with Burnett about their release. Leach eventually tweeted that Burnett had been fired, and that this was a “BIG WIN.” But Burnett wasn’t informed of her nonrenewal until nine days after that, in February, according to the lawsuit. In the interim, Leach tweeted an image of a ticking clock.

Burnett’s nonrenewal notification cited her “insubordination, 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.”

In addition to Pence, Burnett repeatedly criticized Collin on Twitter, including for how it announced the COVID-19-related death of a professor of nursing, Iris Meda, last year -- deep in a “Happy Thanksgiving” email.

Matkin also failed to notify the college community that a student had died of COVID-19 complications until a board meeting 27 days later, according to the lawsuit, and wrote to the college’s Board of Trustees that reports of COVID-19-related deaths generally were “clearly inflated.”

In January, Burnett shared on Twitter a link to an obituary for Ralph Gregory Hendrickson, writing, “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.” The college objected to this post, in particular, telling Burnett that Hendrickson was a former professor, not a current one before his death.

Burnett filed a formal complaint about her nonrenewal, but the college’s Resolution Review Panel denied it.

Burnett says that her speech in all cases was protected, as she “sent these tweets from her personal device, outside the classroom, and on her own time. The tweets were unrelated to, and did not affect, her teaching in her classroom or her other duties as a faculty member at Collin.”

Allegations of Union Busting

Jones, who’d taught at Collin since 2001, says in her own federal lawsuit that she was told by an enrollment dean in 2017 to remove “Collin College” from her signature on an op-ed supporting the removal of Confederate monuments in Dallas. Jones’s affiliation remains on that op-ed, and she says she was never warned that signing the document in that way risked her employment. Yet she says that a formal communication about the incident was scanned into her personnel file, without her knowledge, in September of last year -- just as she was raising internal complaints about the college’s COVID-19 response in her capacity as a member of the college’s Faculty Council.

Around the same time, she was also involved in launching the college’s chapter of the TFA, for which she served as a state-level officer.

Just a few days after Jones asked the Faculty Council for permission to announce the formation of the new chapter, Collin’s dean for academic affairs asked Jones to remove the Collin reference from her contact information on the state TFA website, according to the lawsuit.

Jones and the TFA complied within 48 hours, but the dean called her four times during that period to check in on the removal, the lawsuit says.

In December, Jones was involved in planning a professional development panel on faculty burnout that Collin abruptly canceled. In January, she attended the first recruitment meeting for the campus TFA chapter.

Later in January, Jones was told her teaching contract would not be renewed. Collin’s provost and a human resources officer allegedly told her this was due to her challenging the reopening plan and listing her affiliation to Collin on two occasions, in 2017 and 2020.

Only a few months earlier, Jones received her performance evaluation for the 2019-20 school year, which said she met expectations and was “a dedicated professor with a deep passion for education.” Matkin had also selected her to choose a student to receive the Engaged Faculty Scholarship, which is an honor at Collin.

Jones says she was told by the provost and human resources officer who effectively terminated her that Jones’s associate dean, dean and even the provost herself had signed off on her contract renewal, but that Matkin and Toni Jenkins, a former vice president of operations, did not.

Jones filed a grievance about the loss of her three-year contract. In a written response to the grievance, Jenkins praised Jones’s teaching and scholarship but affirmed the nonrenewal. In so doing, she also cited some of Jones’s social media posts in which she discussed the college’s response to COVID-19.

Matkin responded in writing to affirm the nonrenewal, referencing the 2017 and 2020 affiliation incidents, in particular.

A college review panel considered Jones’s complaint, as well, but denied it on the grounds that her request was “untimely.” Jones said she’d previously been granted an extension by the review panel to call witnesses. The review panel said it had discussed her case privately with Jenkins, according to the lawsuit.

Collin’s trustees ultimately failed to respond to Jones’s grievance, as well, according to the lawsuit.

Jones’s contract ended in May. She says that when she exercised her freedom of expression, she did so on matters of public concern that were outside her duties as a professor, namely, the spread of COVID-19. This concern outweighs Collin’s interest in “promoting efficiency,” she says.

Burnett is seeking injunctive relief and a ruling that Collin and various named administrators -- including Matkin -- violated her right to free speech and engaged in unconstitutional retaliation against professors for speaking on matters of public concern. She’s also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Jones is seeking reinstatement, as well as general compensatory damages and punitive damages against Matkin and Jenkins.

Burnett, who now lives in California, said in a statement, “Professors like me shouldn’t lose our jobs just because we have opinions.” In the classroom, she said, “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, meanwhile, “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.”

Cadena-Smith, of Collin, said that the college “is committed to preserving the rights and privileges of our employees. As such, board-approved policies and procedures guide decisions pertaining to academic freedoms and activities, which are strictly followed during our annual, multi-level reviews for renewals and non-renewals of faculty contracts.”

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