In October, professor Lora Burnett’s tweets rebuking Vice President Mike Pence drew condemnation and a written warning from Collin College, while the institution’s president complained that the tweets had attracted the attention of “legislators” and members of the public, most calling for Burnett’s termination. FIRE wrote to the college twice in defense of Burnett’s First Amendment rights and issued a public records request seeking the college’s communications with the unidentified legislators.
When we last left off, college district President H. Neil Matkin was concerned critics of the college’s administration weren’t interested in getting “all the facts” about the dispute. Meanwhile, Collin College retained a private law firm to ask the Office of the Attorney General of Texas to block public records requests that would shed light on those facts:
As for obtaining an understanding of “all the facts” at issue, public records requests have been directed to Collin College to ascertain how it responded to recent controversies. FIRE, for example, 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.) FIRE has written to the Office of the Attorney General to explain why the college’s refusal to produce records is contrary to the Texas Public Information Act.
That effort to stonewall any inquiry into “the facts” showing how Collin College responded to the controversy continues. The firm retained by the college has again written to the Office of the Attorney General, arguing that it reasonably believed Burnett was on the march to litigation and citing as evidence, among other things, compilations of her tweets.
Under Texas’ Public Information Act, a governmental agency that wants the OAG’s blessing on its refusal to provide public records has to submit written arguments to the OAG, along with copies of the requested records. The law allows the government agency to share the records themselves with the OAG privately — after all, sharing them with the requestor would defeat the purpose. But the agency can’t withhold more than that, and it’s required to provide the “written comments” to the requestor. That ensures the agency’s arguments and evidence are subject to public scrutiny, while keeping the records private until the OAG has had a chance to consider the arguments.
Collin College did not do that.
While the college shared the letters it wrote to the OAG, it refused to provide FIRE with any of the exhibits it included with those letters — that is, the evidence supporting its argument for withholding the documents originally requested. So we sent a new public records request to the OAG. (For those keeping track at home, that makes it a public records request about a public records request.)
What we got back was surprising. Those exhibits went beyond mere copies of documents purporting to substantiate the college’s arguments. Instead, they were covered in annotations explaining each document and making arguments about why it should be seen as support for the college’s position. In other words, these were the very “written comments” the law required the college make public.
We sent a new public records request to the OAG. What we got back was surprising.
Those records were also misleading. The college offered — in support of its argument that Burnett was moving to sue the college — a screenshot of a tweet in which she said she had retained an attorney. Of course, people often retain attorneys to avoid litigation or to protect their rights. That may be why the college’s secret exhibit didn’t bother to include a tweet later in the thread in which Burnett said she is “not litigious.”
We are, like you, shocked to learn of gambling in this establishment.
The college’s aversion to transparency will, ironically, jeopardize its attempt to withhold the records. When an agency contacts the OAG and withholds more information than the law allows, it waives its objections and the requested records are deemed public unless there’s a “compelling” reason to keep them private.
Of course, there is no compelling reason to keep a public university’s correspondence with legislators inquiring about a professor’s political speech private. There never was a good reason to keep that secret in the first place, and the law doesn’t require Collin College to do so.
Yesterday, FIRE asked the OAG to determine that Collin College violated the Public Information Act and must turn over the records of its “contacts” with legislators. Stay tuned.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If your rights are in jeopardy, get in touch with us: thefire.org/alarm.