- Federal district court rejects public college president’s attempt to avoid liability for firing professor who used social media to inform the public about important issues
- Judge denies defendants’ arguments, calling them ‘dead on arrival’
- Embattled president named in three lawsuits from FIRE after making Collin College the ‘epicenter of censorship’ in America
MCKINNEY, Texas, Aug. 26, 2022 — Collin College administrators who fired a professor for her expression can be held personally and financially responsible for violating the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. District Court Judge Amos L. Mazzant ruled that because administrators “by their own admission fired Plaintiff in part for using her private social media account to inform the public about a matter of public concern,” their actions were “clearly unconstitutional.”
The Texas public college fired professor Suzanne Jones in January 2021 after she wrote a Facebook post criticizing the college’s response to COVID-19, signed an open letter calling for the removal of Confederate memorials, and supported a non-bargaining union — all of which are expressive activities protected by the First Amendment.
Professor Jones is represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
“I’m happy but not surprised that the court sees the right to free expression and association as essential for all workers including public employees in higher education,” said Jones, who seeks reinstatement to Collin College. “This is a step in the right direction for my case, but Collin has also been attacking other faculty, staff, and union members. I stand together with the other employees actively suing Collin College for ignoring established rights for public faculty.”
Jones filed a federal lawsuit in September, which alleged a substantial amount of administrative misconduct. Defendants Neil Matkin and Toni Jenkins — Collin College’s president and senior vice president of campus operations, respectively — moved for dismissal, requesting that their actions be shielded by qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits unless they violate clearly established constitutional rights.
Qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” A judge ruled Thursday that it doesn’t protect Matkin and Jenkins.
The judge called Matkin and Jenkins’ argument “dead on arrival” and cleared the path for the officials to be held personally and financially responsible for their actions.
“This is an important development in Suzanne’s case, and we look forward to proving that Collin College violated the First Amendment and should be held accountable for their actions,” said FIRE attorney Greg H. Greubel. “But it’s also a message to administrators around the country: Tread lightly when thinking about firing professors for social media use on important public issues.”
Quoting the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Judge Mazzant wrote that “the more important the subject matter is to the public, the sharper the reaction will be by those whose conduct may be called into question. It is precisely the probability of oppressive over-reaction by the powers that be which requires our constant vigilance of the First Amendment protections accorded all public employees.”
“FIRE is committed to holding government officials accountable for violating constitutional rights,” said FIRE Vice President of Litigation Darpana Sheth. “Government officials should not receive a free pass to censor speech because of qualified immunity. If citizens must follow the law, government officials must follow the Constitution.”
The lawsuit now continues into discovery.
This is FIRE’s third lawsuit at Collin College, which has earned a reputation as the epicenter of censorship in America. Professor Lora Burnett won a $70,000 settlement against the college, while professor Michael Phillips’ lawsuit is ongoing. Both were fired for their speech on matters of public concern.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.
Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org