A Texas professor who said she was fired from Collin College in North Texas after she publicly criticized the school’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has won her job back for two more years according to a legal settlement with the school.
Education professor Suzanne Jones filed a lawsuit in September 2021 accusing the school of violating her First Amendment right to free speech and claimed they fired her for her critical comments and for her work to start a local campus chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a statewide higher education faculty union that lacks bargaining rights.
In a settlement announced Thursday, the college agreed to pay Jones $230,000 as part of a two-year contract starting in January 2023, a much higher sum than her prior annual salary of around $66,000. But she is restricted to teaching online classes only through the college’s iCollin program, and she must resign once the contract is up in 2025. In addition, the college agreed to pay $145,000 in legal fees for Jones. Neither party admitted liability in the settlement.
“The most important thing is that professors feel they are free to speak their minds on matters of public concern without looking over their shoulders for an administrator to punish them for a viewpoint they disagree with,” said Greg Greubel, the lawyer who represented Jones on behalf of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a legal group that defends free speech on college campuses. “All levels of public employees, from Collin College to any prestigious university, they all have First Amendment rights and they all deserve to be respected.”
Greubel said that if Jones decides to leave before her contract is up she will keep the full $230,000 in the contract. But her goal was to be reinstated as a teacher at the college.
Jones had worked at Collin for two decades before her contract was not renewed. The lawsuit said that the college gave three reasons for why they were letting her go. That included that she had signed her name and college affiliation to a petition calling for the city of Dallas to remove Confederate monuments. They also raised issue with her opposition to the college’s reopening plan during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and that she had listed herself as a Collin College professor on the Texas Faculty Association website.
Jones had filed the lawsuit against Collin College, President Neil Matkin and Toni Jenkins, a now-retired vice president of campus operations at Collin College.
After Jones filed the lawsuit claiming those actions were protected speech, lawyers for Collin College had asked the judge presiding over the case to dismiss the case, claiming they had “qualified immunity,” which protects government officials from lawsuits unless they clearly violated an individual or group’s constitutional rights.
But the judge denied that request in August, calling the arguments “dead on arrival,” which meant the officials could be held personally and financially responsible if found to have violated Jones’ First Amendment rights.
See here for a bit of background. Collin College, which is a community college in Collin County, has been the subject of several lawsuits like this, and the bills are coming due. FIRE, the group that represented Professor Jones, included Collin College in its “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list in 2021 and 2022. The Dallas Observer, which has followed these stories closely, adds on:
The settlement with Jones is the second in an ongoing free speech saga. In January, Collin College agreed to pay $70,000 to Lora Burnett, a history professor who said she’d been sacked after criticizing former Vice President Mike Pence in October 2020 and speaking out against the college administration.
FIRE also represented Burnett.
In March, history professor Michael Phillips, author of White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841–2001, filed a lawsuit against Collin College, its president and school officials.
Phillips, who is also represented by FIRE, alleges that the school similarly terminated his contract over his public criticism of the school’s COVID-19 policies and other free speech concerns.
“I never dreamed I would teach at a college where I would be ordered to not share facts, particularly life-saving ones, with my students,” Phillips said in a FIRE release at the time. “We should model for our students how to hear speech and ideas we don’t like, skills necessary for participating in a democracy.”
Phillips’ suit is ongoing.
You love to see it. The DMN has more.