Education

Collin College to Pay $70,000 to History Professor Let Go Amid Free Speech Debacle

Dr. Lora Burnett says she was terminated from Collin College after she criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence on social media.
Dr. Lora Burnett says she was terminated from Collin College after she criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence on social media. Photography by FIRE
Lora Burnett says she isn’t a litigious person and “it wasn’t fun” to sue her former employer. But late last year, the former history professor filed a lawsuit against Collin College, claiming that the school had violated her constitutional rights.

On Tuesday, after more than a year of scuffling with the school, Burnett accepted Collin College’s offer to pay her $70,000 plus attorneys’ fees.

“For me, getting this clear victory having my First Amendment rights vindicated and notching a win — not just for me but for all professors at public colleges — was really important,” she said.

After Collin College made its offer, Burnett took some time to consider. It could take years before the case would go to trial and reach a verdict, she said, so she felt it was wisest for her — and the Collin County taxpayers — to go ahead and accept.

Burnett estimates that when taking into account her attorneys’ fees and the school’s that Collin College could spend upward of $200,000 altogether. “That’s a lot of money. I mean, that’s not chump change,” she said. “And it’s ultimately the taxpayers of Collin County who are on the hook for that.”

Represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech nonprofit, Burnett’s public challenge of Collin College touched off a cascade of controversies.

Her own battle with the college began in October 2020 after she tweeted during the vice-presidential debate that the moderator needed to speak over Mike Pence until he shut “his little demon mouth up.” From there, conservative media outlets picked up the story and Collin College district President Neil Matkin “publicly pilloried” her, she said.

In a text exchange between Plano state Rep. Jeff Leach and Matkin, the former asked whether Burnett was paid with taxpayer dollars. Matkin then replied that the history professor had already been on his radar and that he would “deal with it.”

Last January, Burnett received a warning from the school after she noted on social media that a former Collin College professor had died of COVID-19. Prior to that, Matkin had upset many when he appeared to downplay the pandemic, saying it had been “blown utterly out of proportion.”

Throughout this time, FIRE conveyed to Matkin that it’s unconstitutional to terminate a professor for speaking about a matter of public concern. In February, when Burnett was still employed, Leach tweeted that it was a “BIG WIN” that she’d been fired, apparently revealing the administration's plans.

“I’m going to be on that like a duck on a June bug." – Dr. Lora Burnett

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Burnett learned nine days later that Collin College would not be renewing her contract. So, she and FIRE sued the school.

“Lora bravely stood up not just for her own rights, but for the rights of all professors who encounter censorship by their administrations,” FIRE attorney Greg Greubel said in a statement. “Dr. Burnett’s victory should serve as a warning to overly zealous administrators across the country: if you punish a professor for speaking out, there will be consequences.”

Collin College anticipated a successful outcome in court, spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith said by email. Still, they ultimately "opted to attempt to resolve this litigation expeditiously, with certainty, and, by effectuating an early resolution, in the most fiscally responsible way.”

Burnett accepted the college’s offer, indicating she thought it to be fair even though the accepted amount was “much less than she demanded,” Cadena-Smith said. The early resolution is preferable to engaging in potentially years-long litigation, she added.

“In addition to saving on attorneys’ fees and costs, this resolution will prevent the waste of college resources and continued disruption and distraction to our educational mission,” Cadena-Smith said. “As part of the resolution the college and its leadership did not admit liability which means that Dr. Burnett unequivocally did not prevail in the litigation.”

(FIRE looks at it a little differently, saying that although Collin College didn’t admit liability, “it has effectively chosen to concede the lawsuit by offering judgment in favor of Burnett.”)

Collin College is facing additional lawsuits, including one filed by a former professor who alleged multiple protected-speech violations. Yet another former employee sued the school in November, alleging retaliation and race- and disability-based discrimination.

Burnett says her win has come at an important time. Many professors across the country are under fire for their speech, both inside and outside the classroom. Conservative ideologues in deep-red states like Texas and Florida are punishing educators for teaching the truth, she said. She hopes that leadership will make positive changes, including to the college's policies.

But not all the disputes between college professors and administrators over First Amendment rights arise from conservatives targeting educators. Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, persuaded the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals last year to allow him to continue with a lawsuit he filed after the university disciplined him for his refusal, on religious grounds, to refer to a transgender female student by feminine pronouns. The appellate court overturned a lower court decision dismissing his case, which is still pending.

Even though Burnett has gained a judgment against the school, she still worries about professors at Collin College and across the country whose rights are under attack. “I am going to be an even more vocal advocate for them,” she said. “Because the only way to protect everyone’s First Amendment rights is to bring constant pressure to bear on the government — and Collin College is the government — to respect and guard free speech.

“I’m going to be on that like a duck on a June bug,” she continued.
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, 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