On Oct. 7, Collin College history professor Lora Burnett tuned into the vice-presidential debate and began to tweet.
Like many other Americans, Burnett noted the fly that made itself at home on Vice President Mike Pence’s head for a full two minutes. Like many other Americans, she pointed out his blood-red left eye.
But it was this tweet that would get her in trouble with her employer.
“The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up,” Burnett wrote.
The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up. #VPDebate— L.D. Burnett (@LDBurnett) October 8, 2020
As Plano’s Collin College has made clear, such lighthearted liberal quips aren’t welcome in solidly conservative counties.
Burnett’s posts became troll fodder after they were published on Campus Reform, a conservative watchdog news site that seeks to “expose liberal bias and abuse” on college campuses. Then, Fox News grabbed the baton and ran its own piece.
From there, Burnett was deluged with obscene and vulgar emails from internet trolls, she wrote in a column published by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Blustering bullies called her a Nazi, a Marxist and a pig.
Soon, her college began receiving calls.
Burnett claims to have warned her administration about the impending fiasco and figured that they'd be on her side. She also said she copied her college president, Neil Matkin, to her responses so he could see how she was handling the online harassment.
Yet Matkin never reached out to her personally, nor did he offer her any support, Burnett wrote. Instead, Matkin “threw [her] under the bus” when he sent an all-faculty email to caution that the college was now in the midst of a national controversy, she said.
Although he never mentioned Burnett by name, Matkin said the college was flooded by calls to demand that she be fired. A few defenders had asked for the school “to uphold ‘academic freedom’ and ‘free speech,'" he wrote.
Here is the President's email to all faculty in the entire college -- the first notice or acknowledgment I received from my college about any of this. pic.twitter.com/n8LaN6bK3c— L.D. Burnett (@LDBurnett) October 12, 2020
Matkin also said that the college would not execute its personnel policies in a public manner.
But in a statement on Collin College’s website, the school apologized profusely to those who were offended by the professor’s “hateful, vile and ill-considered” comments. Although it acknowledged that free expression is guaranteed by the Constitution, the post said that profanity and hate are out-of-bounds.
Shortly after, Burnett addressed her employer on Twitter.
"LOL. @CollinCollege is publicly throwing me under the bus, while the college president sends out an email saying that personnel decisions will not be played out in public," she wrote.
Collin College declined to comment further.
From there, school officials emailed Burnett an “Employee Coaching Form” along with “Constructive Feedback," said Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with the campus free speech nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). They also forbade her from using her work email when dealing with personal communications.
But school policy allows professors to use such resources for “incidental personal use," Steinbaugh said, calling the move "the first step on the road to discipline."
As such, FIRE sent a letter to Collin College demanding that they state unequivocally that Burnett’s speech is protected.
“You hire people ... to give voice to views or ideas or theories that may not be widely accepted,” Steinbaugh said. “That’s true inside the classroom and that’s true outside the classroom as well.”
Many others in academia jumped to Burnett’s defense, such as Hank Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. In an article on Academe Blog, he wrote that Matkin’s handling of the ordeal was a “shameful display of moral cowardice.”
An open letter by members of Texas Tech University’s history department asked Matkin to retract his college-wide email. And Jonathan Friedman, a program director with the free expression nonprofit PEN America, lent his support to Burnett in a tweet.
“Right wing TROLLS have been upping their harassment of faculty,” he wrote. “There’s a basic human way to react to this and this college failed.”
Right wing TROLLS have been upping their harassment of faculty. This new piece by @LDBurnett details her recent experience and how @collincollege threw her under the bus. There's a basic human way to react to this and this college failed. https://t.co/dhfC0UcJ0U— Jonathan Friedman (@jzfriedman) October 15, 2020
In its piece, Campus Reform also called out another professor, Sami Schalk, for tweeting during the debate that Pence is a “racist fucking piece of shit.”
Schalk's employer, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, responded to that outlet’s request for comment in a markedly different way.
"When students, faculty, and staff exercise their First Amendment rights to express opinions, they are speaking for themselves, not the university,” they wrote.
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