By Kate McGee, The Texas Tribune
“Jury rules against Texas professor who claimed suburban community college retaliated against him for political speech” 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 jury has rejected a former Collin College professor’s claim that the North Texas school violated his First Amendment rights by not renewing his contract after it expired at the end of the 2022 school year.
History professor Michael Phillips claimed in a lawsuit filed last year that school leaders retaliated against him for speaking out against the McKinney community college’s COVID-19 policies and his support to remove Confederate statues in Dallas.
But a jury, located in nearby conservative Grayson County, rejected that claim Monday, stating that Phillips did not prove beyond a preponderance of evidence that the school retaliated against him. The jury also found that Collin College President Neil Matkin would have reached the same conclusion not to renew Phillips’ contract even if the professor hadn’t spoken out publicly on those issues.
“Despite repeated attacks by the plaintiff, his supporters, and various advocacy groups with their own agendas, this case resulted in a legal victory, including affirmation that the college’s policies are not unconstitutionally vague as alleged,” Collin College spokesperson Marisela Cadena-Smith said in a press release Monday night.
Phillips was represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a legal group that represents students and faculty in free speech legal issues across the country.
“We are deeply disappointed by the outcome of today’s trial,” said FIRE attorney Greg Greubel. “However, we remain incredibly proud to represent Dr. Phillips. FIRE will continue to fight for the expressive rights of faculty across the country.”
FIRE also represented two other former Collin College professors whose contracts were not renewed. They also sued the community college district over alleged violations of free speech.
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.” She 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. She alleged 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. She also settled with the school last year and was reinstated as a professor.
In his lawsuit, Phillips claimed his issues with the college first 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 read.
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.’”
In 2019, Phillips was issued an “employee coaching form” 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 said 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.
In summer 2021, 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.” Phillips said he was issued a warning for the posts.
At the end of August that year, 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.
Collin College leaders said they have disagreed with Phillips’ characterization of events since the lawsuit was filed and said they were pleased a jury agreed.
“Dr. Phillips signed a term contract which ended in May 2022. Under that contract, there is no right or reasonable expectation of continued employment beyond the term of the contract,” Cadena-Smith said. “As an employer, the college has every right to determine who it employs, particularly based on the recommendations of supervisors.”
In 2022, Phillips served as a one-year senior research fellow at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This fall, he is teaching at Texas A&M University – Commerce.
The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.
Disclosure: Collin College, Facebook and Southern Methodist University 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.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a Collin County jury rejected a former Collin College professor’s claim that the school had violated his First Amendment rights. The jury was in Grayson County.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/11/14/collin-college-free-speech-lawsuit/.
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