What a Public-Information Act Request Revealed About My College PresidentRoundup
tags: Texas, academic freedom, Collin College
L.D. Burnett is a professor of history at Collin College.
Last fall, H. Neil Matkin, president of Collin College, sent out an all-hands email — all faculty, all staff, all campuses — announcing that the school would be posting a public statement on the college website condemning me for my “hateful, vile, and ill-considered” speech as a private citizen. He didn’t identify the speech in question — it was a tweet making fun of Mike Pence — but he did say that my comments were so incendiary that he had received “contacts and calls from legislators” regarding my employment.
That claim caught the attention of attorneys for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who sent the college a public-records request for all communications from legislators connected with this incident.
Rather than handing over these records, the college retained an outside law firm to appeal the request to the Texas attorney general’s office on the grounds that, because I had mentioned having employment insurance and a lawyer, the college reasonably believed I was on the verge of filing a lawsuit. When that argument didn’t fly — because my saying that I had an attorney did not mean a lawsuit was imminent, or even that a lawsuit was under discussion (it was not) — they then claimed that the records could be withheld because they were covered by attorney-client privilege, since at least one of these communications happened to come from a lawyer. That argument also did not fly.
For four months, from October to January, the college fought FIRE’s request under Texas’s Public Information Act, sending four letters to the attorney general’s office. Finally, on January 22, the Office of the Attorney General of Texas ruled that the college must turn over records of the communications about me between “legislators” and Matkin.
On February 11, Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, let me know that the requested information would be on his desk by the end of the day.
At last we would know the truth: Who was the college protecting? Which government officials asked to see me fired or otherwise reprimanded for my freedom of speech as a private citizen? Just how powerful or highly placed were these politicians reaching out to the college president? To what lengths were members of the government willing to go to punish a community-college professor over a tweet? Why had the college worked so hard to hide this information?
Well, that “tranche” of records turned out to be nothing more than a single text message from a single state lawmaker, local Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Allen).
One legislator, one contact, one text exchange. That’s it.
Here is the record Collin College fought so hard to conceal from the public:
JEFF LEACH: LD Burnet (sic) is paid with taxpayer dollars, correct?
MATKIN: I’m aware of the situation Jeff and will deal with it. Already on my radar before the current issue. She is definitely paid with taxpayer dollars.
LEACH: Ok cool. I’m getting calls from folks. Not a ton... but a few .. as it is starting to percolate on social media.
MATKIN: My inbox and the board is getting the same. Appreciate you. Good luck in November friend.
And with that disclosure I learned the truth that the college and its outside law firm had worked so hard to keep from all of us professors and from the public at large: The college president has likely been bluffing all along. About everything.
Matkin had no records of a phalanx of friends in high places willing to back him as he retaliated against some professors and tried to bully the rest into a terrified silence. If there were other legislators who weighed in, he apparently has no proof of it and the college has no record of it.
Instead, it looks like the college was mainly trying to protect Matkin himself. In his all-hands email, he had exaggerated the private backlash to my tweet in order to justify his heavy-handed public response. And in the text exchange itself, he revealed that he monitors his faculty for their speech — something to which many of my colleagues can attest.
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