Lora Burnett, a Texas educator who was fired from her job as a professor at a public college after tweeting commentary critical of then-Vice President Mike Pence, has won a settlement from her former employer that she and her attorneys are calling a “victory.”
The former Collin College history professor accepted an offer from the North Texas school to pay a judgment of $70,000 and attorneys’ fees over her First Amendment lawsuit filed in October 2021.
The college made the final judgment offer on Jan. 13, 2022. Under the terms of the offer, which was open for 14 days from the date of service, the school “does not admit liability.” Burnett accepted her former employer’s offer on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022 by way of a brief one-page filing in a Sherman, Texas-based federal court.
“I hope I am the last professor that Collin College fires for exercising her First Amendment rights, but if history is any indication, no one who has an opinion is safe from Collin College leaders’ thin skin,” Burnett said in a statement provided to Law&Crime by her attorneys. “We should all be protective of the rights granted by the Constitution — and stand up to defend them when they’re violated.”
After Law&Crime originally reported on this case, Collin College sent a statement saying they looked “forward to defending our actions in court.” The school, via Marketing & Communications Director Marisela Cadena-Smith, insisted it had done exactly that in an email response to an inquiry about the settlement. Collin College also took umbrage at the idea that Burnett had prevailed in the litigation.
In her lawsuit, Burnett claimed that her firing came as a favor to a prominent GOP state legislator following Pence’s appearance on a televised October 2020 vice-presidential debate. The educator tweeted comments savaging Pence–as well as some critical of the school’s president viz. Covid-19–and allegedly drew the ire of Texas State Rep. Jeff Leach (R), who represents Collin County.
During the debate in question, Burnett tweeted: “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” She also retweeted another user’s post referring to Pence as a “scumbag lying sonofabitch.”
Conservative media quickly mounted an outrage campaign against the then-history professor. Her tweets first appeared on CampusReform.org, a website funded by the conservative non-profit The Leadership Institute, before, like sea turtles on a predictable nesting journey, making their way to Fox News on Oct. 9, 2020.
“That same day, [Collin College President H. Neil] Matkin sent an email to an internal faculty listserv warning that the ‘execution of [the college’s] personnel policies will not be played out in a public manner,’” the lawsuit goes on to explain. “[Matkin] also noted that ‘college constituents’ and ‘legislators’ had contacted the college about faculty members’ tweets about the debate.”
Leach was eventually revealed to be one of those referred-to “legislators.” The college initially spent roughly $14,000 in legal fees in a failed effort to obscure and hide the existence of the Matkin-Leach correspondence by stonewalling numerous public records requests.
Now, per the terms of the proffered judgment, Collin College is set to pay out one last course of legal fees to settle Burnett’s lawsuit.
“Collin College hereby offers to allow entry of a final judgment against it in the amount of $70,000.00 payable to Burnett and an additional amount of reasonable and necessary attorneys’ fees and court costs recoverable by applicable law and incurred by Burnett as of the date of this offer of judgment, as determined by the Court under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure after briefing and/or a hearing. As such, this offer includes reasonable attorneys’ fees and court costs recoverable by applicable law,” the since-accepted offer notes.
Burnett was represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) a First Amendment organization that takes on free speech and expression cases regardless of their viewpoint.
“FIRE is thrilled Dr. Burnett has been vindicated in her pursuit of justice against the college and Neil Matkin,” FIRE attorney Greg Greubel said. “Lora bravely stood up not just for her own rights, but for the rights of all professors who encounter censorship by their administrations. 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.”
Burnett, FIRE says, was the third person targeted by Collin College administrators in 2021 “for exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Earlier that year, two other professors were fired for comments critical of the school and because the fired educators had signed a petition calling for the removal of Confederate statues. One of those professors also has a separate lawsuit currently pending against Collin College.
“It’s clear that Collin College leadership has no respect for the First Amendment, which is a real shame for an institution of higher learning,” Burnett added. “It’s also clear that they have no respect for the taxpayers of Collin County, because it’s the taxpayers who ultimately foot the bill for the College’s misdeeds.”
Law&Crime reached out to Collin College for comment and clarification on this article. Their response is available below, in full:
Collin College has been repeatedly recognized as being among the best employers in higher education in the nation and is one of the top-performing community colleges in Texas.
Every year for more than 30 years, Collin College has utilized a faculty contract review process that includes recommendations from multiple supervisory levels. Among several faculty members throughout the district whose contracts were not renewed in 2021 was Dr. Lora Burnett, who, at the time, was on a one-year faculty contract. The college provided Dr. Burnett a letter with its reasons for not renewing her contract.
In October 2021, Dr. Burnett filed suit against the college and its leadership claiming infringement on her rights to free speech. The college and its leaders vigorously defended themselves in court and recently filed early motions to dismiss many of Dr. Burnett’s claims, which we believe would be granted by the Court.
Although we firmly believe in the lawful decisions made and anticipate a successful court outcome, the reality is that we have opted to attempt to resolve this litigation expeditiously, with certainty, and, by effectuating an early resolution, in the most fiscally responsible way.
Therefore, Collin College, pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, extended a monetary offer to Dr. Burnett and her attorneys, which she has accepted. Apparently, Dr. Burnett believed the offer to be fair but the amount she ultimately accepted was much less than she demanded.
This type of early resolution is less damaging to the college than leaving the litigation unresolved for years. 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. 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.
The college has no further comment on this matter.
[image via FIRE with permission]
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