Earlier this year, education professor Suzanne Jones learned her contract wouldn’t be renewed despite her having worked at Collin College for nearly two decades and getting glowing evaluations. On Wednesday, she filed a lawsuit against her former employer.
It’s a shame that the lawsuit had to be filed at all, said Adam Steinbaugh, a First Amendment lawyer with the campus free speech nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
“It is hard for me to be surprised by the college’s actions, given the history of this institution’s leadership,” he said. “But this complaint contains some pretty damning evidence of retaliation.”
Jones and her attorney declined requests for comment.
Earlier this year, Jones and three other female professors claimed Collin College let them go in violation of their rights. Later, a fifth professor resigned, citing years of racial harassment there.
Yet Jones appears to be the first of these former faculty members to attempt to hold the school accountable in court.
The lawsuit cites three violations of “clearly protected speech,” Steinbaugh said. Jones had signed a letter calling for Confederate monuments to be removed, had helped create a union chapter and had criticized the school’s COVID-19 policies.
In August 2017, Jones joined numerous other professors in signing an op-ed that called for the removal of Dallas' Confederate monuments. As with other signatories, Jones’ school appeared next to her name, which Collin College took issue with.
A Collin College professor fired for protected speech — signing a letter calling for the removal of Confederate monuments, efforts to create a union chapter, and raising concerns about COVID-19 — sues: https://t.co/usDSIewDHe https://t.co/UdUrKykRYR— Adam Steinbaugh (@adamsteinbaugh) September 23, 2021
Last September, the school’s name was also listed next to Jones’ personal contact information on the website for the Texas Faculty Association (TFA), a higher education advocacy group. Jones was secretary and treasurer of Collin College’s TFA chapter.
The administration asked to have Jones' details removed from TFA’s site, which they did within 48 hours.
Jones wasn't told that either instance was grounds for nonrenewal of her contract, according to the lawsuit. She was informed of her nonrenewal on the same day that Collin College's TFA was set to hold its first recruitment meeting.
School leadership was also upset that Jones had signed a resolution calling for certain COVID-19 safety measures.
When FIRE and other organizations reminded Collin College about Jones' protected speech, it should have self-corrected, Steinbaugh said. The board of trustees also should have stepped in to safeguard faculty freedoms.
“None of that happened,” Steinbaugh said. “And now, after getting appropriately thrashed in the court of public opinion, the college is now going to stand before a court of law.”
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The school follows board-approved procedures and policies regarding the nonrenewal process and review of faculty contracts, Collin College spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith said by email.
“While it is regrettable that a former faculty member has chosen to file a lawsuit, the College looks forward to defending its 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.”
Texas State Teachers Association spokesperson Clay Robison said the organization and its TFA affiliate have advocated for Jones from the beginning.
“We have supported Suzanne all the way through this process, and we will continue to support her,” Robison said. “And the lawsuit, we think, speaks for itself.”
Former professor Lora Burnett also accused Collin College of firing her, in part, because she was vocal about her political views. Last October, after she criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence on Twitter, the school issued a public apology.
At one point, state Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano, appeared to ask the school’s president via text to fire Burnett. She claims the school paid $14,000 to try to keep the exchange hidden.
Later, Collin County Judge Chris Hill also seemed to celebrate that professors like Jones were being let go.
The administration’s “lawless behavior” is costing Collin County taxpayers, Burnett said. Taking legal action must be “daunting” for Jones, who’s up against an institution that’s shown little respect for people’s rights and the rule of law, she added.
“It’s scary to think that you’re not just asking for justice for yourself and your colleagues,” Burnett said, “but you’re asking for it in a situation where the entire political leadership of the county has already weighed in and said that your rights don’t deserve protecting.”
In addition to asking for reinstatement, Jones is seeking yet-to-be-determined compensatory damages, according to the lawsuit. She’s also asking for benefits that were "illegally denied," including 564 hours of accrued sick time.
The contract nonrenewal “negatively affected Jones’ prestige, opportunity for advancement, working conditions, income, and her ability to obtain outside employment,” the suit adds.
Meanwhile, Burnett said Collin County is attempting to attract white-collar jobs, and the school wants to secure corporate partnerships.
“There’s a lot of boosterism going on encouraging people from other states to … buy into the idea that Collin County is a cutting-edge place to live,” she said. "The college’s leadership is undercutting that message by deliberately making the school a provincial backwater.”