While many of us are (understandably) happy to try and forget Mike Pence, one former history professor, Lora Burnett, doesn’t have that particular luxury. How come? As reported by The Texas Tribune, Burnett was fired from her job as a professor at Collins College, a publicly funded community college in North Texas, near Dallas. What does this have to do with Pence? Burnett took to her private social media account to share a tweet critical of Pence, which made waves during vice presidential debate coverage. Burnett was eventually disciplined by the college before being fired.
And now? Burnett has filed a federal lawsuit against the college (including its president and trustees) claiming the school violated her First Amendment rights. Specifically, the school decided not to renew her three-year contract. Because Collins doesn’t have a tenure system in place, this contract renewal system is an especially big deal.
Back in October 2020, Burnett tweeted that the vice presidential debate moderator “needs to talk over” Pence until he “shuts his little demon mouth up.” From there, Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach texted H. Neil Matkin, president of the college, and inquired about whether Burnett was “paid with taxpayer dollars,” as reported by The Fire. Matkin replied that he was “aware” of the situation and promised to “deal” with it before wishing Leach good luck in November.
According to Inside Higher Ed, Collin reportedly spent $14,000 to try and keep these texts private while engaging in a legal back and forth about their release. Leach also tweeted that Burnett being fired was a “BIG WIN”—nine days before Burnett herself was informed her contract wasn’t renewing. Leach allegedly shared a picture of a ticking clock as well.
In the Tuesday filing, she claims that the school’s decision not to renew her three-year contract was retaliation for those comments, as well as her public criticism of the school’s COVID-19 reopening plan, and violated her First Amendment rights. In speaking to the Tribune, Burnett stressed that she was not teaching while making the comments, nor was she speaking on behalf of the college. According to the suit, Burnett believes she was also let go partially because she was critical of the school’s COVID-19 response. The suit also notes Burnett made the comments using her own personal device.
Interestingly, four professors have publicly called out the school over the way it handled the pandemic. A fellow former professor, Suzanne Jones, who taught education, has also sued the school in recent months, while the third and fourth professors have opted not to sue. Only one of the four remains employed by the school, though according to Burnett’s filing, that professor did receive a warning after calling out the school’s pandemic response on social media.
Burnett, for example, alleges that the school was too slow in announcing that a student had died due to COVID-19 and that the college purposefully “obscured” the impact of the pandemic. After a former colleague died, for instance, Burnett tweeted her peer’s obituary, writing: “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.”
In a statement via the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Burnett argued that people shouldn’t lose their jobs simply because they have opinions.
“Outside the classroom, I have the right to express myself, too,” she said in part, as reported by The Independent. “I have the right to fully engage with any public debate. That right is for all of us, not just for professors whose politics match up with their college administrators.”
Collins spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith said the college “stands firm in our belief in our faculty review process and looks forward to defending our actions in court.”
You can check out an awesome interview with Burnett below, where she goes deeper into her side of the situation.
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