'You Can't Ban Feelings': Collin College Trustees Mull Tightening Speech Restrictions

Collin College's board of trustees can dish it but they can't take it.
Collin College's board of trustees can dish it but they can't take it. illustration by Sarah Schumacher
For months, many have accused Collin College of muzzling outspoken professors. Now, leadership appears to be broadening its scope.

During the Collin College board of trustees meeting Tuesday, leadership told the audience they'd be trying something new. Hoping to "make a little improvement" in the meetings' public comments section, the board wanted to "provide some guidance on the appropriateness of comments."

That day, a photo of a paper declaring "Procedures for Public Comment at the Board Meeting" began circulating on social media. Some of the points were standard fare — speakers must be called in the order they signed up, for instance. But many took issue with rule No. 7: "Anger, obscene or profane language, ridicule, personal attacks, and disruptive conduct are not acceptable behavior during the public comment period.”

Yep, no getting mad, folks. Otherwise, speakers could get booted from the room.

But when asked for comment, a Collin College spokesperson insisted via email that it was all a big misunderstanding. He wrote that "the guidelines are only a draft" that had been discussed during Tuesday's work session. Somehow, that draft had been distributed to local media without the proper context.

Nothing to see here.

The spokesperson also didn't answer the Observer’s question about the way the school defines the word "anger". So, let’s consult the dictionary.

Merriam-Webster defines anger as “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism.” See the third word there — “feeling”? That’s the operative one.

“You can’t ban feelings. That is the sum and total of my comment,” First Amendment lawyer Adam Steinbaugh said with a laugh.

Steinbaugh works with the campus free speech nonprofit the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He’s followed the Collin College free-speech saga from the beginning.

Collin College’s administration has adopted a “shoot first and then ask if it’s constitutional later” approach, Steinbaugh said. If a constituent comes before the government and demonstrates they’re angry, and that’s used as the basis to silence them, it’s viewpoint discrimination.

Such a subjective policy is a slippery slope to censorship, he said.

Collin College’s board has a responsibility to defend the free speech of faculty, which Steinbaugh said it hasn’t done. In fact, FIRE recently named Collin College one of the country’s 10 worst schools for free speech.

“You can’t ban feelings." – Adam Steinbaugh, First Amendment lawyer

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For months, former Collin College history professor Dr. Lora Burnett fought to keep her job, a battle she ultimately lost. The school had taken issue with her tweets, including one in which she made fun of former Vice President Mike Pence.

Burnett’s case attracted the attention of national educator advocacy organizations, which sharply condemned the school’s firings. Despite those efforts, she worked her last day May 14.

But on Tuesday, Burnett again called out the school, posting to Twitter a picture of the board of trustees' public comment guidelines. Burnett decried rule No. 7 as a flagrant violation of First Amendment rights, saying it’s “terrible” and “ignorant” of the board to try to restrict what the public says.
“I found it so laughable that a government agency believes that it can dictate the contents of public comments and dictate the tone of them,” she told the Observer. “It’s a ridiculous policy.”

All of the four professors who say they were unjustly let go last semester are women. A fifth employee, administrator Linda Wee, has also accused the school of discrimination.

Critics say such an arbitrary policy could be used to disproportionately target women who criticize the school, dismissing detractors as “angry” rather than assertive.

One of the meeting’s attendees, Collin College history professor Dr. Michael Phillips, said board members discussed the draft during the work session. Even though it’s just a working document, it was still distributed to speakers ahead of the comments section.

Speakers also had to fill out forms detailing their personal information, Phillips said, such as full names, emails and home addresses. It’s unclear how such data will be used, but to him, it's yet another way to chill free speech.

It has become increasingly difficult to speak at board meetings over the past couple years, Phillips said. For instance, the public used to be allowed five minutes for comments, but then that was slashed to three minutes.

Phillips believes the collection of personal data and stringent speaking guidelines are ways to further stymy dissent. Now, the public has little recourse other than voting for trustees, but those staggered elections only occur every six years.

“I would characterize it as a democracy crisis,” Phillips said.

Writer and editor Betsy Friauf told the Observer she had also attended both the work session and board meeting. When a staff member handed her a copy of the working document, she informed him that it hadn’t yet been approved. From there, he should have consulted with his superiors, but he didn't, Friauf said.

When it was her turn to speak, Friauf chastised the Collin College board. She told trustees it's "hypocritical" that they seem so concerned about decorum, considering the ways that district President Neil Matkin has reportedly behaved.

In April, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Matkin had once put a bowl on his head to impersonate his Jewish predecessor. He has also made racist and sexist remarks during college events, Friauf said, but leadership hasn’t issued “one public syllable" to condemn such actions.

Many faculty members are too afraid to speak out against the school, Friauf added. They’re also scared to attend board meetings and publicly interact with those who don’t agree with the current administration.

The board continues to do nothing to protect faculty from unconstitutional intimidation, she said. That’s how abusive relationships work: The person in the weaker position is bullied into keeping quiet, and when they do speak up, they’re often accused of being dishonest.

“This is gaslighting in the most cowardly fashion,” Friauf told the board of trustees. “But it’s never too late for courage, and I invite you to try it.”
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Simone Carter is a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer who graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter

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