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As Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pledge to end both critical race theory teachings and faculty tenure at state public universities threatens to redefine academic freedom in Texas, a community college in North Texas has already become an early battlefield over faculty members’ free speech rights.
History professor Michael Phillips is the third faculty member at Collin College to sue the school alleging retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech. Phillips’ lawsuit, filed in federal court on Tuesday, says he was fired because he spoke publicly about politically contentious issues like the school’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the removal of Confederate statues in Dallas.
Phillips filed the lawsuit against the college, which serves more than 52,000 students northeast of Dallas, as well as the board of trustees and multiple college administrators, including President H. Neil Matkin, Provost Mary Barnes-Tilley and Abe Johnson, senior vice president of campus operations.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune, Phillips said he felt Collin was providing a model for other colleges on how to censor professors who speak out.
“This is a nightmarish vision of what higher education might become in Texas in coming years unless this assault on free speech is stopped,” Phillips said. “College administrators might be looking at what Collin is doing and seeing a model there, sadly.”
Community college professors often do not have tenure protections and are usually hired on multiyear contracts, as is the case at Collin College. Phillips’ lawsuit argues that the lack of tenure protections at the school has allowed college administrators to terminate faculty members who say things they disagree with, creating a culture of silence on campus.
“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Defendants have used their lack-of-tenure ‘system’ to implement an unconstitutional policy of terminating or disciplining professors who speak out on matters of public concern,” the lawsuit says.
Greg Greubel, a lawyer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is representing Phillips, said that while censorship at colleges and universities is all too common, the situation at Collin College is unique.
"This is the first time FIRE has represented multiple professors against a single college and its president at the same time, and we look forward to proving that Collin College’s actions are egregiously unconstitutional in court," he said in an email to the Tribune.
Several Texas Republican lawmakers have sought to limit how teachers can discuss race in K-12 classrooms, characterizing legislation passed last year as “anti-critical race theory.” Critical race theory is an academic discipline that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s that looks at why racial inequality has persisted in the U.S., but conservative lawmakers and activists have recently used it as a broad term as they attack books and teachings that discuss race and gender in K-12 schools.
Last month, that conversation shifted to higher education when Patrick said he plans to introduce a bill next legislative session that would ban “critical race theory” teachings and eliminate tenure for new hires at the state’s public universities. The proposal sparked widespread condemnation from faculty organizations, professors and some university leaders, including University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell.
FIRE, a legal group that represents students and faculty in free speech legal issues across the country, also represented two other former professors who have sued Collin.
Former history professor Lora Burnett sued the school last year alleging that she was fired for public statements she made about former Vice President Mike Pence. According to Burnett, the college decided not to renew her contract due to “insubordination, making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations, and personal criticisms of co-workers, supervisors, and/or those who merely disagree with you.” Burnett said the college did not provide specific examples of how she had violated the college’s personnel policies.
She recently settled with the school, accepting an offer to receive $70,000 plus her attorney’s fees, though the school did not admit liability.
Another professor, Suzanne Jones, who taught education, also sued Collin — alleging she was fired for publicly criticizing the school’s handling of the pandemic and her work to start a local campus chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a statewide higher education faculty union that lacks bargaining rights. FIRE is also representing Jones in her case against the school, which is ongoing.
A humanities professor, Audra Heaslip, has also alleged that she was fired for her public concerns about the handling of the pandemic. Heaslip has not filed a lawsuit against the school.
Marisela Cadena-Smith, a spokesperson for the school, said in a statement that the college looks forward to defending its case against Phillips in court.
“The college vehemently disagrees with Dr. Phillips’ mischaracterization of this personnel matter as part of the lawsuit he has filed,” Cadena-Smith wrote. She also noted that the college has every right to determine who it employs, “especially when no immediate supervisors recommend an employee for continued employment.”
Phillips wants the court to order Collin College administrators to institute protections that prevent other faculty members from being terminated for expressing their opinions about the college or other issues and end the college’s policy that faculty can’t speak to the press on public issues. He is also seeking reinstatement, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
Phillips’ lawsuit says his issues with the college began in August 2017 when he co-wrote an open letter calling for the removal of Confederate monuments in Dallas. The school told him that writing the letter violated the school’s policy “because it was ‘something that made the college look bad’ and mentioned his institutional affiliation,” the lawsuit reads.
According to the lawsuit, two administrators told Phillips that the college policy requires faculty and staff to “‘exercise appropriate restraint, exhibit tolerance for differing opinions, and indicate clearly that they are not an official spokesperson for the College District’ when they speak or act as private citizens because ‘their actions will inevitably be judged by the public and reflect upon their profession and institution.’”
Phillips was issued an “employee coaching form” in August 2019, the lawsuit continues, after he gave an interview to The Washington Post to discuss race relations in the Dallas area after a Collin College student opened fire in a Walmart in El Paso.
According to the lawsuit, administrators said such interviews violated the school’s policies because faculty are identified as Collin College professors, even if they are speaking as private citizens.
The lawsuit says Phillips was told in the coaching form that “expectations moving forward are to follow the President’s directives when approached by the media.”
During the first year of the pandemic, Phillips wrote a post in his Facebook page criticizing Collin College’s decision to return to full-time, in-person learning in fall 2020.
“That feeling when your employer doesn’t care about your health and safety,” the post read.
The school again called him into a Zoom meeting alerting him his post violated the college’s “code of professional ethics” and its policy manual, the suit says.
Last summer, Phillips again posted a message on social media from a faculty meeting about the college’s COVID-19 guidelines, showing a slide that said faculty members are forbidden from requesting, requiring or recommending mask usage on signs or in their syllabi.
He posted the picture of the slide and wrote, “Note what we were told about discussing masks and Covid with students at my college today.” He was issued a “Level 1 warning” for the posts, while also citing previous issues.
On Aug. 31, the school alerted Phillips his three-year contract would not be renewed, the lawsuit says. He filed a challenge to that decision and applied for a new contract through a faculty group at the college called the “Council on Excellence,” which helps faculty review applicants for new contracts.
As he was appealing the school’s decision not to renew his contract, Phillips covered the history of pandemics in his classes and assigned his students to write a paper on the history of epidemics, from Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the American continent to COVID-19. During those teachings, the lawsuit says, Phillips reviewed anti-masks advocacy groups during the 1919 influenza pandemic and “explained that historians found such resistance seriously damaged efforts to bring the flu under control.”
According to the lawsuit, Chaelle O’Quin, associate dean of academic affairs, told Phillips that students complained about his comments about mask-wearing and he was placed on a “performance improvement plan.”
While the faculty-run Council on Excellence recommended that Phillips receive a new contract, administrators ultimately disagreed and President Matkin decided not to offer him a contract, the lawsuit says.
When Johnson met with Phillips and told him it was unlikely he would get a new contract, he “asked Phillips whether there was a way they could ‘create a narrative’ that would allow Phillips to make a ‘graceful exit’ from Collin College,” the lawsuit states.
The college’s decision not to renew the three fired professors’ contracts has drawn criticism from multiple faculty organizations across the country, including the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association and the Academic Freedom Alliance. A Change.org petition to reinstate Phillips has garnered more than 2,300 signatures as of Tuesday.
Phillips said he hopes to win this lawsuit to set a “pro-free speech precedent for colleges and universities” and disrupt what he describes as a “trend toward censorship on a number of topics: public health, but also racial justice, gender studies.”
Disclosure: Collin College, Facebook and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.