Collin College’s Texas two-stepping on free speech continues

October 23, 2020

Last week, my colleague Adam Steinbaugh wrote about FIRE’s ongoing defense of the rights of Collin College professor Lora Burnett, who came under fire for her tweets critical of Vice President Mike Pence during the recent vice presidential debate. While publicly, Collin College President Neil Matkin seemed understanding enough that Burnett’s tweets were protected by the First Amendment, his private communications were another matter. As Adam wrote

In private, however, Collin College President Neil Matkin took a more ominous tone, writing in an email to faculty members that Burnett’s tweets had attracted the attention of “college constituents” and led to “contacts from legislators” and members of the public, most calling for Burnett’s termination. Matkin added that the “execution of [the college’s] personnel policies will not be played out in a public manner.”

Further, the college gave Burnett an “Employee Coaching Form” warning about Burnett’s “personal” use of college computing resources — a warning hard to square with the college’s written policies authorizing “incidental” personal use. This prompted a letter from FIRE calling on the college to cease obfuscating Burnett’s First Amendment right to speak as a citizen on matters of public concern and to back off any potential threat of discipline. 

FIRE received a timely response from Collin College. Unfortunately, it only served to reaffirm our initial concerns, leading us to write to the institution again yesterday. 

Why the renewed concern? The college’s responsive letter “rais[ed]—for no apparent, defensible reason—Burnett’s contractual status as a professor … in order to argue that she has no property interest in her role.” 

This is both irrelevant and wrong. As Adam writes in yesterday’s letter:

If the College fails to renew Burnett’s contract because of her extramural political expression or criticism of the institution, it will violate the First Amendment and further erode its reputation. Raising the possibility of a non-renewal exacerbates FIRE’s concerns about Collin College’s fidelity to its fundamental First Amendment obligations. 

Adam’s letter cuts through other defenses from the college, such as its claim that Burnett’s tagging of the college in a subsequent tweet somehow formally conscripts the college into her messaging. Adam retorts that “No reasonable person would interpret a tweet tagging another user as speaking on behalf of that user.” Indeed, Collin College is doing far more to insinuate itself into Burnett’s tweets than the other way around. 

You can also read Burnett’s own commentary on the exchange here. For our part, FIRE has called on Collin College, again, to unequivocally defend Burnett’s First Amendment rights and forswear any retaliation for her protected speech. 

For an additional valuable perspective, check out Matt Reed, author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Confessions of a Community College Dean” series, who lacerates the college’s maneuvering in a recent entry.  Reed offers two interpretations for why the college has responded in the fashion it did. Both of them are plausible, and neither are flattering. Reed writes of Collin College President Neil Matkin’s response to the controversy: 

The generous reading is that he knows full well that nothing Burnett wrote comes anywhere close to a termination offense. Because it doesn’t. But he also knows that many powerful people in the community either don’t know that or wouldn’t accept it if they did. So he has to perform a convincing bit of Outrage Theater to appease the angry external parties, even while leaving himself enough wiggle room not to actually get into a battle he can’t win. …

[…]

The more discouraging interpretation is that he simply doesn’t understand the implications of what he’s doing. If that’s true, then that’s genuinely alarming.

A college president — whether community college, research university or whatever else — should have a big-picture understanding of some key concepts. Those should include free speech, free inquiry, academic freedom, the notion of a public good and the fundamental truth that higher education is more than just the personnel office for the economy. 

Self-interested calculation or plain obliviousness to the First Amendment rights of the people under their watch? You could look at any number of cases in FIRE’s history and find plenty of examples of both phenomena at work. And after our record-breaking summer, with its numerous cases of students and faculty facing wrongful investigations and sanctions for their protected speech, and college leaders getting the First Amendment dead wrong, it seems that leadership on free speech is more wanting now than ever. Collin College should want to separate itself from the pack, not fall in line with it.

You can read FIRE’s second letter to Collin College here:

FIRE-Second-Letter-to-Collin-College-October-22-2020

Schools:  Collin College

Cases:  Collin College: Email Alludes to Discipline Under ‘Personnel Policies’ After Tweets Criticizing Vice President Pence