Burnett v. Collin Community College District: History Professor Fired for Criticizing Mike Pence and Her College’s COVID-19 Response Online
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Burnett v. Collin College – Complaint
Lora Burnett was a full-time history professor at Collin College. Like many Americans, Burnett shared her thoughts about important public issues, such as the 2020 presidential election and the COVID-19 pandemic on Twitter. During the October 2020 vice presidential debate, Burnett tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” Burnett also criticized Collin College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She publicly challenged Collin College President H. Neil Matkin’s assessment that the pandemic was “blown utterly out of proportion.” She also informed the public about the death of a former Collin College professor by tweeting, “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.” In private text exchanges with Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, who was apparently upset about Burnett’s tweets concerning the debate, President Matkin promised to “deal with it” and later terminated Burnett.
Public institutions like Collin College are bound by the First Amendment, and it is unconstitutional to terminate a faculty member based on her comments about matters of public concern on her personal social media account. Collin College’s termination of Burnett because of her protected expression constitutes unlawful retaliation for constitutionally protected speech.
On October 26, 2021, Burnett — represented by FIRE — sued Collin College and its officials challenging its retaliatory non-renewal of her teaching contract. Because Collin College does not have a tenure system for professors, Burnett and others had no protection from Collin College’s custom or practice of terminating professors for speaking out on important public issues. With her lawsuit, Burnett hopes not only to vindicate her own First Amendment rights, but to prevent Collin College from trampling on the speech rights of its faculty and students in the future.
On January 25, 2022, Burnett accepted the college’s offer to pay $70,000 and attorneys’ fees in exchange for having a judgment entered against them in Burnett’s favor, bringing her First Amendment lawsuit to an end. After accepting the offer, Burnett is considered the prevailing party in the lawsuit.