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[UPDATED] After four months of stonewalling, Collin College reveals the ‘contacts from legislators’ over Pence critic

Paper records on a shelf

Last week, Collin College finally turned over a document it fought for months to conceal: The records of the “contacts from legislators” its administration received after conservative media outlets republished a professor’s tweets criticizing then-Vice President Mike Pence. 

The backstory:

Last fall, in the run up to the presidential election, Collin College professor Lora Burnett shared her less-than-enthusiastic thoughts about the debate performance of then-Vice President Mike Pence, who Burnett tweeted should shut “his little demon mouth up.” After the tweet was highlighted by conservative media outlets, college district President H. Neil Matkin complained that the tweets had yielded public calls for Burnett’s termination, as well as “contacts from legislators.”

Who those “legislators” were — or what they said — was, and is, unknown. 

Collin College’s president was lamenting that nobody was trying to learn the truth — that contrary to the “narrative,” he had successfully “protected faculty from reprisal, harassment, censorship, and interference” — while Collin College privately fought to prevent release of records about its valiant efforts:

[We] issued a request asking for the communications with state legislators since Matkin previously said that the college received “contacts from legislators” and members of the public, most calling for Burnett’s termination. We were curious to see how the college’s leadership responded in private to queries from the public’s representatives.

Yet the college has since retained an attorney to ask the Office of the Attorney General of Texas to permit the college to refuse to disclose public records about what transpired. (Curiously, the college’s argument is that it believed the dispute was likely to wind up in litigation, at the same time it was telling Burnett that she did not need an attorney.)

The insincerity of the college’s claims was, unlike its approach to public records, transparent. Matkin’s caterwauling included this I-believe-in-free-speech-but gem, explaining that he was “unequivocally poised and prepared to fully defend and protect faculty members” followed immediately by equivocation: “who recognize the parameters of free speech set out by Board policies and who seek, or attempt to use, sound judgment and professionalism in their communication.”

In any event, that stonewalling went on for four months, with Collin College’s outside counsel writing four letters to the Office of the Attorney General of Texas. (How much that cost Collin County taxpayers is anyone’s guess.)

Ultimately, the Attorney General’s Open Records Division ruled against Collin College, rejecting its arguments that a discretionary exception for records related to anticipated litigation applied. As we explained:

As part of its effort to keep the records from being disclosed, the college invoked an exception to Texas’ public records laws that allows public agencies to hide records when they reasonably believe that they’re going to be sued, provided the records are relevant to the lawsuit. That’s a peculiar exception. Just when the public’s interest in transparency is at its peak — when there are allegations that the government is breaking the law — Texas’ public records law allows governments to clam up. Such an exception also incentivizes threats of litigation from people who want to hide records from the public, while disincentivizing those whose rights are threatened from asserting their rights, lest it give government actors an excuse to hide records.  

Last week, Collin College finally produced the records of “contacts from legislators” to FIRE, and we promptly turned them over to Lora Burnett, who shared those results today in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Who were Matkin’s friends in high places?  Who were the legislators calling for the suppression of professors’ free speech? What would this tranche of documents reveal?

Well, that “tranche” of records turned out to be nothing more than a single text message from a single state lawmaker, local Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Allen).  

One legislator, one contact, one text exchange. That’s it.  

The screenshot, which required an ruling from the Office of the Attorney General of Texas to obtain:

Text message screen shot

Public institutions actively cultivate and zealously guard their relationships with lawmakers — Collin College includes Rep. Leach on a public list of lawmakers with whom it “work[s] closely,” if it weren’t already apparent from the informality of the text-messages above. Lawmakers may not have the ability to decide which professors to hire or fire, but their inquiries about specific faculty members are unlikely to be received in the same way that a complaint from the average member of the public would be treated.

More concerning is Matkin’s response. Whatever the source of pressure — whether from the public, students, faculty, advocacy groups, or legislators — the leaders of public universities and colleges should defend their constituents’ First Amendment rights. That, in particular, is what Collin College’s own policies obligated Matkin to do:

Faculty members have a right to expect the Board and the College District’s administrators to uphold vigorously the principles of academic freedom and to protect the faculty from harassment, censorship, or interference from outside groups and individuals.

That’s not what Matkin did. Far from “protect[ing] faculty from reprisal, harassment, censorship, and interference,” as he claimed in public, Matkin reassured that Burnett was “already on my radar.”

Presumably, Burnett was on Matkin’s “radar” because of an email she sent to Matkin criticizing his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As other faculty members at Collin College have recently learned, criticizing Matkin — who in August shrugged off the virus as “blown utterly out of proportion” — over COVID-19 places them on Matkin’s radar and could lead to their contracts not being renewed. 

Matkin’s “radar” — and pledge to “deal with it” — came with warning shots, as Burnett subsequently received multiple written warnings of dubious nature, as the college hinted that her contract might not be renewed. 

That’s not exactly “vigorously” protecting faculty from censorship or interference, and Matkin’s fair-weather offer to defend faculty so long as they “judiciously” exercise “appropriate restraint” and “exhibit tolerance for differing opinions.” Matkin’s watered-down approach to free speech is far short of the robust protection required by the First Amendment, which protects “the right to criticize public men and measures—and that means not only informed and responsible criticism, but the freedom to speak foolishly and without moderation.”

Instead of paying outside lawyers to fight records requests, maybe it’s time for the College’s board to insist that the college retain outside investigators to ascertain whether its leaders have violated the rights of its faculty by making them targets on a radar.

UPDATE (Feb. 17): If there was any ambiguity about Rep. Leach’s purpose in his text exchange with Matkin, Leach’s tweets responding to this story provide clarity.

In a since-deleted tweet, Leach responded to Burnett’s criticism that he shouldn’t have been “trying to get professors fired over a tweet” by claiming it as a “BIG WIN!” that Burnett had been fired over her “maniacal, obscene rhetoric”:

Jeff Leach deleted tweet

Burnett has not been fired, but Collin College has hinted that it will not renew her contract — the same way the college recently retaliated against other critics of its administration’s COVID-19 response.

Leach then tweeted he was “thrilled indeed” with FIRE’s report about his private text messages with Matkin:

After Burnett pointed out that she had not been terminated by Collin College, Leach tweeted:

Why did Leach believe Burnett had been fired? And why is he confident Collin College will terminate her?  

Matkin should immediately disclose each conversation he has had with any elected official about any faculty member or their speech. If he does not do so, Collin College’s Board of Trustees should require it. If this is how Collin College “vigorously” upholds expressive rights and “protect[s] the faculty from harassment, censorship, or interference from outside groups or individuals,” then it’s clear why it’s one of the worst colleges for free speech in America.

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