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Collin College professor reinstated at school in free speech lawsuit settlement

By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune

Collin College professor reinstated at school in free speech lawsuit settlement” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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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.

In a statement, a Collin College spokesperson confirmed Jones would be returning to work through February 2025.

“Collin College recognizes that Dr. Jones is a great teacher and during her time at the college demonstrated good performance through high evaluations and was respected by her students and many of her colleagues,” said Marisela Cadena-Smith, a spokesperson. “Dr. Jones is excited about her return to the classroom and is grateful to the administration for the opportunity to teach bright minds at the college.”

Jones’ lawyer directed questions about why Jones could only teach for two more years at the school to Collin College, which declined to elaborate on the settlement details.

In a statement, Texas Faculty Association President Pat Heintzelman celebrated the decision.

“We hope her reinstatement serves as a reminder that college professors have the same rights to free speech and association as other Americans do,” Heintzelman said.

Jones is the second professor represented by the free speech legal group FIRE to settle with the college and one of four professors who have sued the college in recent years.

Former history professor Lora Burnett sued the school last year, claiming she was fired for public statements she made about former U.S. 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 settled with the school, accepting an offer of $70,000 plus attorney’s fees, though the school did not admit liability.

In March, former history professor Michael Phillips sued the school, claiming the college did not renew his contract because, similar to Jones’ cases, 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. FIRE represented Burnett and currently represents Phillips in his case.

Last summer, Swee Lian “Linda” Wee, a former director of continuing education, filed a lawsuit alleging multiple employees discriminated against her based on her race and gender, created a hostile work environment and retaliated against her. The case is pending.

Disclosure: Collin College has been a financial supporter 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.

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