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Collin College Wins Lawsuit Over Freedom Of Speech [Update]

A jury rejected Professor Michael Philips’ claims that his termination was retaliation for criticizing the school’s administration
Professor Michael Philips | Photo courtesy of FIRE

Another lawsuit against Collin College was resolved on Monday, Nov. 14, 2023. A jury in Grayson County rejected history professor Michael Phillips’ claim that the school retaliated against him over his opinions on the college’s COVID-19 policies, violating his First Amendment rights.

Update 11/21/2023 3:00 p.m.: A previous version of this story mistakenly stated that Professor Jones was reinstated to her position at Collin College, this has since been corrected. We regret the error.

As previously reported by Local Profile, Philips’ lawsuit was ignited when the college decided to not renew the professor’s contract after it expired at the end of the 2022 school year. The suit claimed that this was in retaliation for Philips’ public opinions. In 2017, Philips co-wrote an open letter in support of the removal of Confederate monuments in Dallas. 

According to FIRE, the nonprofit dedicated to defending the First Amendment in academia, this letter resulted in a meeting between the professor and college administrators who believed the letter violated college policies, making “the college look bad” since it mentioned Philips’ affiliation with the institution. Later, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Philips criticized the college’s policies on his personal Facebook account and discussed in his class the harmful effects caused by antimask advocacy groups during the 1918-19 flu pandemic — resulting in a formal reprimand by the college. 

“From the beginning, the college vehemently disagreed with Dr. Phillips' mischaracterization of this personnel matter,” Collin College Associate Vice President of Communications Marisela Cadena-Smith told Local Profile. “Our faculty members sign term contracts that – by operation of law – end in May of their respective terms… Under that contract, there is no right or reasonable expectation of continued employment beyond the term of the contract. As an employer, the college has every right to determine who it employs, particularly based on the recommendations of supervisors.”

According to the Texas Tribune, the jury that overlooked Philips’ case found that Collin College President Neil Matkin would’ve reached the same conclusion with or without Philips’ public criticism of the institution.

“Despite repeated attacks by the plaintiff, his supporters, and various advocacy groups with their own agendas, this case resulted in a legal victory, including the affirmation that the college’s policies are not unconstitutionally vague as alleged,” added Cadena-Smith.

However, not all lawsuits filed against the college over violations of the First Amendment ended favorably for the school. In November 2022, the second lawsuit filed by Professor Suzanne Jones, also represented by FIRE, ended with a settlement agreement and her temporary reinstatement to the institution after more than a year of litigation, although she's currently not employed by the college. Additionally, the organization representing Lora Burnet reached a settlement of $70,000 plus attorney fees with Collin College. 

This streak of controversies led to the institution being added to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) censure list in May 2023. In late April 2023, the association released a report detailing the Collin College administration’s summary termination of the services of three professors that revealed “egregious violations” of said professors’ academic freedoms “to speak as citizens and to criticize institutional policies.”