Why I Won’t Be Quiet

My colleagues are afraid our employer will retaliate against their free speech, so I’m gonna keep talking…and tweeting

My byline is uniform across the internet — L.D. Burnett — so many of my readers here have probably found me from my Twitter feed or my posts at the U.S. Intellectual History blog or my editorial work at The Mudsill.

Some readers here may have found me through a couple of my essays published recently in The Chronicle Review: “Right-Wing Trolls Attacked Me. My Administration Buckled” and “When My College Attacked Me, Professional Insurance Saved My Bacon.” Those essays reference the fact that during the Vice Presidential debates last fall, I tweeted that the moderator should keep talking over the constantly-going-over-his-time Mike Pence until “he shuts his little demon mouth.” For that tweet I was publicly reprimanded and disciplined by my school.

And newer readers here may have found me through a recent piece written about me by Chronicle senior reporter Emma Pettit: “A College Warned a Professor About Her Tweet. She Says That’s Retaliation.”

Some of my readers, not to mention a few of my friends, might feel bemused or even mystified by one motif running through all those Chronicle pieces: through it all, I keep tweeting. Not only that, but a few of my tweets have been critical of my employer, Collin College.

Why, if teaching full-time at a community college has long been my dream job, would I apparently put that job in jeopardy by continuing to tweet in defiance of my employer’s attempts to silence my protected speech as a private citizen? After all, the college has evidently learned nothing from the demand letter and the follow-up letter sent to them by one of America’s premier free speech advocacy groups, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Yes, after having been warned, twice, that they have violated my civil rights, the school is doubling down and once again violating my civil rights by reprimanding me for private speech that does not conform to the school’s expectations. If my employer were a private college, it might be able to get away with this obsession with controlling my free speech. However, my employer is a public college, an agency of the government, and as such it has no more leeway to dictate the contents of my private utterances than does Congress or the legislature of Texas.

Yet the college persists in doing something that TheFIRE’s lawyers and (one hopes) its own lawyers surely have advised them that it cannot legally do without facing civil penalties: issue disciplinary notices for my tweets.

Clearly, whatever the college thinks it may cost their reputation or their liability insurance company or whatever, they have decided that the eventual cost of violating my civil rights will be easier to bear than the cost of keeping me on the payroll as that one vocal professor who sometimes criticizes her employer on Twitter.

Why?

The answer is very simple: if my colleagues see that I am able to exercise my First Amendment rights without suffering retaliation from the school, then my colleagues may begin to exercise their own First Amendment rights where the college is concerned. They may begin to be unafraid of speaking up about unsafe conditions or unjust treatment or administrative malfeasance.

How do I know that they are currently afraid to speak up about these things right now? They have told me so.

I encouraged one colleague whom I know to have been disciplined in the past for their free speech to file a case with TheFIRE. The colleague’s response? “I’d like to, but I’m afraid of retaliation. I need to see how your situation works out first before I think about protesting my own treatment.”

Colleagues have told me, “We feel like everything is riding on you.” They have said, “You are giving us all hope.” Talk about a burden! But I am glad enough to shoulder it.

I had a colleague who was contacted by a journalist ask me, “Are we allowed to say negative things about the college to a reporter?”

I wrote back, “I am not a lawyer, but the case law in the FIRE memo seems pretty clear: the college can’t discipline you for giving an interview to a journalist.”

I sat in on a Faculty Council meeting where staunch defenders of both First Amendment rights and the principle of academic freedom were seeking to pass a resolution calling on the school to remove its asinine public statement condemning me for a tweet. In response, other professors in that meeting — including, incredibly, professors in government, political science, and history — said, “well, yes, we have First Amendment rights, but our contract says that our speech has to reflect the college’s Core Values.”

It is nothing short of remarkable to me that people with PhDs in political science are so cowed by this college that they still haven’t grasped this simple fact: that clause in our contracts is absolutely unenforceable. A government agency, particularly a community college, cannot require its employees’ extramural speech to conform to some standard of respectability.

Not every professor is cowed. And my courage has given courage to others to begin speaking up. They told me as much.

Indeed, one professor replied-all to the college president, who sent out an email denouncing my free speech and threatening the execution of “personnel policies” in my case. In that reply-all, the professor said,

…Even though I am finally financially secure, even though I have family members who are currently depending on my income because they lost theirs due to Covid 19, and even though I am in fact terrified that speaking out about this will cause retaliation against me (remember, I’ve experienced it before in Higher Ed), none of those concerns are worth walking through life with the weight of knowing I did not make my voice heard in a situation wherein the very rights upon which our country was founded are being threatened.

They went on to say that they found the college president’s email and the college’s public statement to be a clear attempt to chill all faculty speech. Soon after that, the college shut down faculty’s ability to reply-all.

So if you’re reading this and wondering why I don’t just shut up and stop tweeting in the hopes that my employer will let bygones be bygones and I can continue in a job that I worked toward and landed against long odds and that I do very well (per the student course evaluations filed with my employer every semester and per my employer’s own evaluations of my instruction), here’s the answer:

My employer is trying to make an example of me in order to intimidate my colleagues into silence, and I refuse to let that happen.

At my age, I would never be able to replace the income I will lose if I lose my job. But, much like my brave colleague, I would not be able to sleep at night knowing that if I became silent and compliant, my colleagues would lose any hope that it is possible to exercise their first amendment rights without losing their job.

That’s why they’re hell bent on firing me, even if it means laying themselves open to an easily demonstrable charge that they’ve violated my civil rights. If they can’t make me shut up, they know that it’s only a matter of time before other professors start talking. They must be terrified of what truths will come out.

So I stay tweeting. If I am not bullied into silence by their retaliation against me while I’m in their employ, think how little incentive I would have to protect the school from public scrutiny if I were fired over my twitter feed.

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

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