Collin College Professor’s Tweet About Vice President Sparks Debate Over Academia And Free SpeechHistorians in the News
tags: free speech, academic freedom, harassment, Campus Reform
As Lora Burnett watched the vice presidential debate, she got frustrated.
She said Vice President Mike Pence kept talking past his allotted time, even after polite and repeated requests to stop.
So Burnett, a Collin College history professor, did what millions of people do every day: She sounded off on social media.
“The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up,” she posted on Twitter.
Her tweet led to a sharply-worded message from the college administration and sparked a broiling debate in suburban Dallas and beyond over the state of free speech among academics in the middle of a heated political climate.
“That’s what I’ve become infamous for,” Burnett said in an interview as she reflected on the recent firestorm.
Burnett’s Twitter feed from the debate night shows other tweets and re-tweets critical of Pence, including a re-tweet that describes the vice president as a “scumbag” and includes a swear word.
As Burnett’s social media comments attracted national attention, Collin College received complaints, emails, voicemails and “contacts from legislators,” according to an email that Neil Matkin, President of the Collin College district, sent to faculty.
The American Historical Association said it sent a letter to Matkin, saying it hopes the Collin College administration resists pressure to take disciplinary action against Burnett.
Historians have “the right … to express their opinions as private citizens without fear of institutional discipline,” the letter said.
Free speech experts and advocates say Burnett did not cross a line.
Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights In Education, said the school missed an opportunity.
“The institution needs to take the lead in educating people, and say the First Amendment protects this kind of speech,” Steinbaugh said. “The First Amendment not only prevents the institution from taking action here, but it’s a good thing that we’re not able to take action here, because otherwise that would imperil speech of all views
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