The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Settlement in Firing of Professor for Tweets (for $70K + Attorney Fees)


The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports:

Today, Lora Burnett, a former Collin College history professor fired for tweets critical of the college administration and of former Vice President Mike Pence, accepted the college's offer to pay $70,000 and attorneys' fees, bringing her First Amendment lawsuit to an end.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education represented Burnett. Although the college has not admitted liability, it has effectively chosen to concede the lawsuit by offering judgment in favor of Burnett….

During the vice presidential debate in October 2020, Burnett tweeted: "The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up." The tweet was picked up by conservative media outlets and outraged Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach, who texted Collin College President Neil Matkin to ask if Burnett was "paid with taxpayer dollars." Matkin responded that he would "deal with it."

Burnett landed on Matkin's radar again in January 2021 with a tweet countering his assessment that the pandemic was "blown utterly out of proportion." Burnett shared a link to an obituary of a former Collin professor, tweeting "Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID." The college responded by issuing Burnett a formal warning.

During this time, FIRE wrote repeated letters to the college president, advising him of Burnett's rights and reminding him of the college's constitutional obligations. Public institutions are bound by the First Amendment; as such, it is unconstitutional to terminate a faculty member based on comments about matters of public concern.

In February, Leach prematurely tweeted that Burnett had been fired, which he characterized as a "BIG WIN." Nine days later, the college followed through. In response, FIRE and Burnett filed a First Amendment lawsuit….

Burnett is the third faculty member disciplined by Collin College in 2021 for exercising their First Amendment rights.

On Jan. 28, professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones — who represent two-thirds of the leadership of a local chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a non-bargaining union — were informed that their contracts would not be renewed, due to objections from senior administrators. The college cited the professors' criticism of the college's decision to reopen amidst the pandemic, references to the college's name on the TFA's website, and Jones' signature on a public letter urging the removal of Confederate statues.

Jones has filed a lawsuit against Collin College that is currently pending….