On Tuesday, Dr. Lora Burnett filed suit against her former employer, Collin College. The former history professor alleges she was terminated after she took to social media to comment on national politics and criticize the school's COVID-19 response.
Her lawsuit comes at a time when conservative lawmakers are attempting to tighten the reins on what can be taught in the classroom. But Burnett said good professors don’t infuse their personal political leanings into lectures.
“U.S. history professors are not what America needs to worry about,” she said. “America needs to worry about government agencies stifling the speech of private citizens.”
Since last year, Collin College has repeatedly made headlines for its treatment of employees, with professors painting a portrait of a school in crisis. Several have claimed the college terminated them for criticizing its coronavirus policies. Others have said they were targeted over their involvement in a non-collective bargaining teachers union.
In April, the Allen American reported that a Collin College administrator had lodged formal complaints alleging retaliation and an unsafe work environment. Last month, a former professor also filed a lawsuit against the school, citing several violations of protected speech.
Now, after getting slapped with another lawsuit, Collin College’s legal headache keeps getting worse.
Last year, Burnett took to Twitter to lambaste Mike Pence during the 2020 vice presidential debates. After her tweets attracted the attention of right-wing media outlets like FOX, state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, then asked district President Neil Matkin about Burnett. Matkin promised to “deal with” her.
Burnett also tweeted about a fellow Collin College faculty member who died of COVID-19 and criticized Matkin for his pandemic response. Soon enough, she’d received a warning letter before ultimately being let go.
“It was a real blow. I mean, it was shattering,” Burnett told the Observer this spring. “Teaching at Collin College is my dream job.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a campus free speech nonprofit, is representing Burnett.
Her lawsuit alleges that Collin College and its board of trustees created an unconstitutional practice of terminating teachers who speak out about matters of public concern in ways they disagree with. The school doesn’t have a tenure system by design, so employees can be let go for “no reason at all."
The suit also claims Burnett has experienced irreparable injury and harm through the deprivation of her constitutional rights to free expression. In addition to losing her salary, she’s also suffered from significant emotional distress.
“This wasn’t a careless oversight on the part of the college. This was part of a pattern of behavior and long-standing practice,” she said. “And because I wasn’t quiet about what was happening to me, I think that really raised the stakes for the college in terms of defending their unconstitutional practice.”
Professors have the right to speak out on controversial issues without having their employer punish them for it, said Greg Greubel, a litigation attorney with FIRE. Educators can’t do their jobs effectively if they can get terminated over views that don’t align with those of their administration.
If Burnett and others are unable to share informed opinions on public issues in the public sphere, it's “weakening to our entire democracy,” he said. It’s unusual that so many professors have accused the school of violating their First Amendment rights.
“You don’t see this every day. It shows me that it’s more than just one bad actor,” Greubel said. “It’s evidence of a custom or policy at Collin College that if you’re going to speak out against the administration, your job's in jeopardy, which is an unconstitutional policy.”
Collin College is dedicated to preserving employees' rights and privileges, spokeswoman Marisela Cadena-Smith said by email. Board-approved procedures and policies are followed during reviews over whether contracts will be renewed.
"While it is regrettable that a former faculty member has chosen to file a lawsuit, the College stands firm in our belief in our faculty review process and looks forward to defending our actions in court," she said. "Out of respect for our former employee and due to pending litigation, we will make no further public statement regarding this matter."
The college’s practice of intimidating professors is being challenged in court, Burnett said. It will be interesting for Collin County taxpayers to learn how much of their money is being used to “defend an indefensible practice.”
This lawsuit is important for other faculty nationwide, who could be intimidated from participating in public debate outside school hours, Burnett said.
She hopes the court will vindicate the right to free speech — both for herself and for her former colleagues. For many, it’s been too long since they could speak up without fear.
“None of this has been easy. None of this has been pleasant. And going through a lawsuit is not going to be pleasant or easy either,” Burnett said.
“I can think of so many things that I’d rather be doing,” she continued, “but I can’t think of anything more important right now.”