LAWSUIT: Fired for criticizing Mike Pence and campus COVID-19 response, a Collin College history professor sues to protect faculty rights

October 26, 2021
  • FIRE files lawsuit on behalf of Lora Burnett, a former Collin College professor, fired for tweets that criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence and the college’s leadership during the pandemic.
  • In private text exchange with Texas state legislator upset about Burnett’s tweets, college president promised to ‘deal with it’ — then terminated her.

MCKINNEY, Texas, Oct. 26, 2021 — Collin College has sent a chilling message to its faculty: Shut up or you’re fired. Today, a former faculty member is sending a message back: See you in court.

Former history professor Lora Burnett filed a lawsuit today against Collin College, its president, H. Neil Matkin, and other university officials for firing her for speaking out on important public issues. Represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Burnett seeks to vindicate her First Amendment right to speak out as a private citizen on matters of public concern.

​​Collin College declined to renew Burnett’s contract on Feb. 25 after she publicly criticized former Vice President Mike Pence and the college president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Professors like me shouldn’t lose our jobs just because we have opinions,” Burnett said. “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.”

During last October’s vice presidential debate, Burnett tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” The tweet was picked up by conservative media outlets highlighting faculty members’ reactions to the debate. 

The tweet outraged Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, who texted Matkin to ask if Burnett was “paid with taxpayer dollars.” Matkin responded that Burnett was “[a]lready on my radar” and he would “deal with it.” 

Burnett landed on Matkin’s radar again in January when she criticized the college president’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Burnett challenged Matkin’s earlier assessment that the pandemic was “blown utterly out of proportion,” by adding commentary about a former Collin College professor’s death. She tweeted: “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.”

During this time, FIRE wrote repeated letters to Collin College advising the school of Burnett’s rights and reminding the college of its constitutional obligations. 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. 

Meanwhile, the college spent $14,000 on legal fees seeking to conceal the text exchange between Matkin and Leach from the public. The college lost that battle. Leach tweeted on Feb. 16 that Burnett’s termination was a “BIG WIN” — before Burnett had even been fired. When he learned that his announcement was premature, he tweeted an image of a ticking clock to indicate that her time as a Collin College professor was running out.

Nine days later, the college notified Burnett that her contract would not be renewed, citing “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.”

“A professor expressing their political views on social media is not insubordination, it’s core protected speech,” said FIRE attorney Greg H. Greubel. “Colleges and universities are supposed to be a space for individuals to engage in fearless debate on controversial issues, not a place where criticizing your boss gets you fired. If professors like Lora Burnett cannot inform the public about their views on public issues and problems on campus, our democracy is weakened. This case shows that when colleges treat professors as disposable, academic freedom and faculty expressive rights become disposable, too.” 

COURTESY PHOTOS FOR MEDIA USE

“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,” said FIRE attorney Joshua Bleisch. “The First Amendment ensures they can share those opinions, even if Collin College prefers they stay silent.”

JT Morris is serving as local counsel for the lawsuit. The board of trustees is meeting tonight at the Collin Higher Education Center at 5:30 p.m.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Associate, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org


Schools:  Collin College

Cases:  Collin Community College District: History Professor Fired for Criticizing Mike Pence and Her College’s COVID-19 Response Online FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project