The more one studies Collin College’s kerfuffles over academic free speech, the deeper the rabbit hole goes. So deep, in fact, that it snakes all the way to the Texas Legislature.
Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published documentation that Collin College had fought to keep buried: a text message exchange between the school’s president and state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano. At the center of the conversation was Lora Burnett, a history professor at Collin College.
Burnett believes Leach tried to get her fired over tweets she’d made criticizing former Vice President Mike Pence.
"Jeff Leach has been a big critic of cancel culture,” Burnett said, “but he was more than willing to embrace cancel culture to get a professor fired because my politics differ from his.”
Although he didn’t return the Observer's request for comment, some of Leach’s actions appear to support Burnett’s suspicion.
Last week, Burnett replied to one of Leach's Twitter posts. In response, the lawmaker apparently celebrated what he believed was Burnett’s firing.
“The fact that you are no longer paid and your maniacal, obscene rhetoric no longer supported with Collin County taxpayer dollars is a win! A BIG WIN!” Leach said in a tweet.
After Burnett informed Leach that she’s still employed, he responded with a gif of a ticking clock.
To learn how a state representative began trolling a local professor — during a week when Texas was in crisis because of statewide power outages amid freezing weather — you have to go back to October.
That month, Burnett got in trouble with her employer after she tweeted during the vice-presidential debate that Pence, who repeatedly talked beyond his designated time, needed to shut his “little demon mouth up.” She’d also retweeted a post calling him a “scumbag lying sonofabitch.”
Afterward, the school publicly apologized, even though its policy dictates that administrators have an obligation to defend professors’ free speech. In an email to faculty, district President Neil Matkin also complained he’d received “contacts from legislators” demanding Burnett’s termination.
So, FIRE asked for the school to release records of those contacts, which Collin College fought. Ultimately, though, the Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled Collin College had to hand them over.
Burnett was anxious: Who in the world had her in their crosshairs? Surely, the college must be trying to protect some powerful Texas or national politician, she thought.
She said she was “so disappointed” to learn it boiled down to a text message exchange between Matkin and Leach.
“LD Burnet [sic] is paid with taxpayer dollars, correct?” Leach asked.
“I’m aware of the situation Jeff and will deal with it,” Matkin said. “Already on my radar before the current issue.
“She is definitely paid with taxpayer dollars,” he continued.
“Ok cool. I’m getting calls from folks. Not a ton… but a few… as it is starting to percolate on social media,” Leach said.
“My inbox and the board is getting the same,” Matkin replied. “Appreciate you. Good luck in November friend.”
Taxpayer dollars aren't just funding Burnett's salary; she said they're also paying for Collin College's legal fees. Monday evening, Burnett tweeted that a records request revealed the school had spent at least $14,000 to hide that single text exchange.
wild, wild week.— Dr. Lora Burnett (@LDBurnett) February 22, 2021
speaking of which, you will be delighted to know that @collincollege spent AT LEAST $14,000 trying to keep @leachfortexas's text message to Neil Matkin from coming to light. That was taxpayer money.
Collin College didn't reply to the Observer’s requests for comment.
Over the past few months, the school has made several headlines with many faculty criticizing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two professors say they were terminated as a result of speaking out and for their participation in a non-bargaining faculty union.
In a list FIRE published last week, Collin College was named one of the top 10 worst schools for free speech. That designation didn’t surprise Burnett.
“It seems to be a pattern with the people connected with Collin College … that the speech of women is really threatening to their sense of control and authority,” she said.
Leach has long painted himself a champion of the First Amendment. But during the 2019 legislative session, he also filed a bill that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote would weaken a Texas law preventing lawsuits stifling free speech; an amended version was later signed into law.
More recently, Leach came under fire for a tweet in which he appeared to defend an alleged Capitol insurrectionist’s right to wear a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt. The lawmaker wrote that while he doesn’t approve of the man’s ostensible Nazism, he would still “fight for his right to be an ass.”
No. I’m not good with that. But I’ll fight for his right to be an ass as much as I’ll fight for you right to be a troll. https://t.co/ZtM2nFtrc3— Jeff Leach (@leachfortexas) January 8, 2021
Burnett also pointed to a 2018 Facebook post in which Leach declared he’d uphold the right for teachers to say “Merry Christmas.”
“He’s positioned himself as a real champion of free speech,” Burnett said. “But it’s apparently only speech he likes that he will champion.”
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