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Federal Judge Rules Collin College Officials Can Be Held Financially Responsible [Update]

Professor Jones’ lawsuit alleges a violation of the freedom of speech and freedom of association rights
Collin College plaintiff Suzanne Jones. Image courtesy of FIRE. Credit: JX Studio

Earlier this year, Local Profile reported the allegations of intimidation against Collin College president made by Loyola University of Chicago professor Benjamin H. Johnson over freedom of speech matters. And, as previously mentioned, this wasn’t the first time the institution has been involved in controversy.

Last Thursday, August 25, a federal judge denied the accused members of Collin College's motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity, ruling that they can be financially responsible for violating the First Amendment.

Update 8/31/22 – 8:15 a.m. A Collin College spokesperson issued the following comment to Local Profile:

The college respects the ruling of the Eastern District federal court, but it is not the final ruling in the case. Rather, as stated in the Court’s opinion, by viewing Dr. Jones’ allegations in the most favorable light and making no credibility determinations, the court determined the case could proceed with all of the parties originally named in the lawsuit. This case has been pending for nearly a year and early on in the litigation, the college attempted to narrow the claims and the parties involved.
In response to the summary judgment motion filed by the college, Dr. Jones voluntarily dismissed two of her unviable claims on March 17, 2022. Unlike Dr. Jones’s response now, the college did not declare a victory then. The case is now expected to proceed and the parties can engage in the discovery phase of the litigation. The college will continue to vigorously defend its actions and the reasons that Dr. Jones’ term contract was not renewed when it expired in May 2021.

The original story continues below.

According to a court document released by Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a nonprofit dedicated to defending the First Amendment in academia, Suzanne Jones, a professor of twenty years at Collin College, shared on her private social media in 2020 that the institution was requiring many students and teachers to return to in-person classes. In her post, she urged her followers to consider contacting the college president Dr. Neil Matkin asking for a solution. 

This social media post came after a series of disagreements between Jones and college officials, among them president Matkin, over the previous three years. 

Shortly after Jones shared her concerns on social media, she and other faculty members organized a Collin College chapter of the Texas Faculty Association, a local affiliate of the Texas State Teachers Association and the National Education Association, and this was the cause of further disagreements between Jones and Collin College. 

On January 28, 2021, the local union chapter held its first recruitment meeting at Collin College. That same day Jones was informed her teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed. According to the document, three faculty members had recommended an extension of the contract but president Matkin and senior vice president of campus operations Dr. Toni Jenkins (another official named in the lawsuit) allegedly overruled said recommendation. 

According to college officials, the criteria observed for the nonrenewal were related to the professor’s performance as a faculty member and her compliance with established policies, while Jones claims that she was given two reasons for the nonrenewal: challenging Collin College’s COVID-19 reopening plans and for referencing Collin College in publicly accessible websites. 

After Jones filed a federal lawsuit in September 2021, Collin College appealed for qualified immunity, a legal principle that protects government officials from lawsuits but it doesn’t protect them from violations of clearly established constitutional rights. This motion was denied by a federal judge last Thursday.

“This is an important development in Suzanne’s case, and we look forward to proving that Collin College violated the First Amendment and should be held accountable for their actions,” said FIRE attorney Greg H. Greubel in an official statement. “But it’s also a message to administrators around the country: Tread lightly when thinking about firing professors for social media use on important public issues.”

“I’m happy but not surprised that the court sees the right to free expression and association as essential for all workers including public employees in higher education,” said Jones, who seeks reinstatement to Collin College. “This is a step in the right direction for my case, but Collin has also been attacking other faculty, staff, and union members. I stand together with the other employees actively suing Collin College for ignoring established rights for public faculty.”

FIRE stated that this is their third lawsuit filed against Collin College. Previously the organization represented professor Lora Burnett who won a $70,000 settlement agreement, and professor Michael Phillips, whose lawsuit is still ongoing.

Local Profile reached out to Collin College but did not hear back prior to publication.