There is a new free speech case out of Texas where a former history professor, Lora Burnett, is suing Collin College over her termination. Burnett alleges that the college fired her after she lashed out at former Vice President Mike Pence and tweeted that a moderator in his debate with now Vice President Kamala Harris should shut his “little demon mouth up.” While I disagree with Burnett’s rhetoric and tenor, the lawsuit has the makings of an important free speech challenge.
Burnett became a target of criticism after she tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” She also retweeted a post that referred to Pence as a “scumbag lying sonofabitch.”
In her 30-page filing, Burnett alleges that Collin College, its president H. Neil Matkin and other college officials refused to renew her contract due to her controversial tweet. The complaint alleges that the college received considerable pressure from donors to fire her after her commentary on the vice-presidential debate. The complaint cites an email on the same day in which Matkin referenced upset “college constituents” and “legislators” who contacted the college after the tweet.
In one of the most telling pieces of evidence, Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach (R) texted Matkin to ask if Burnett was “paid with taxpayer dollars.” Matkin responded that Burnett was “[a]lready on my radar” and he would “deal with it.”
When Burnett was later terminated, Leach declared it a “Big Win” publicly. The problem is that the termination may have been public knowledge since Burnett had not been informed of the decision. Burnett responded to Rep. Leach on Twitter stating that she had not been terminated and Leach tweeted back an image of a ticking clock.
Burnett also crossed swords with the college over Covid. In August 2020, Matkin sent out an email to staff declaring that the COVID-19 pandemic had been “blown utterly out of proportion.” He invited people to show “better numbers” to the contrary but criticized the “inflation” of numbers by some commentators. When a faculty member later died from COVID-19, Burnett wrote “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.”
After her COVID-19 tweet, Burnett was issued a formal “Level 1” warning. The college objected that the individual was in fact a former professor, Ralph Gregory Hendrickson, who has not taught at the college for a number of years. While I do not see the need for a formal warning, the objection is a valid one. Burnett’s tweet could have left people with the impression that there was an outbreak on campus. The college has also cited other grounds for not renewing the contract, including “insubordination” and making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations.
Yet, the emails with the state representative add a credible basis for the free speech challenge. The college is a state school subject to First Amendment protections for free speech.
It is important that we maintain content neutral approaches to such free speech controversies. We have previously discussed the concern that academics are allowed (correctly) to voice extreme views on social justice and police misconduct, but that there is less tolerance for the voicing of opposing views on such subjects. There were analogous controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There was also such an incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
Nevertheless, in the past, I have defended extremist views on academic freedom grounds like those of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis also writes for the site “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”) I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements.
We have seen the same pattern involving conservative faculty members whose contracts were not renewed after free speech fights. There is a particular concern in some of these past cases over investigations or punishments linked to commentary on social media as private citizens. Faculty should be allowed to engage in the political debate and express their personal views, even obnoxious views, outside of their respective schools.
The emails to the state representative (and his knowledge of the firing before Burnett was informed) raise troubling concerns over free speech. There may be other reasons for the decision but the complaint would seem to offer sufficient evidence to go to trial on the issue. The response of the college to her criticism of Pence was inappropriate and chilling. The college should have defended Burnett’s right to free speech regardless of any disagreement with the content of her views.
We will continue to follow the case.