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Collin College professor sues after his contract wasn't renewed, alleges free speech violations

Glass front entrance of Collin Community College Wiley campus
Collin Community College's Wiley campus.

History professor Michael Phillips is now the third teacher in the past year to sue Collin College. Like the other two whose contracts were not renewed, he says the college routinely violates faculty free speech rights. The college disagrees.

Yet another Collin College professor has sued the school and system president Neil Matkin, alleging First Amendment violations. The latest suit was filed Tuesday.

Award-winning history professor Michael Phillips was told earlier this semester that his contract ending in May wouldn’t be renewed, even though his college’s evaluators, the Council on Excellence, approved him for a 3-year contract extension.

Phillips likens it to being fired.

In a statement, Collin College “vehemently” disagreed with what it called Phillips’ mischaracterization of this personnel matter.

He’s the third professor to sue the school in the past year. All made similar allegations that their rights to advocate for a safe workplace during COVID-19 — such as Phillips’ request that students wear masks in class — helped lead to an end of his employment at the college. Phillips posted photos of printed instructions that professors couldn’t recommend students wear masks, citing state policy. There was no such state policy.

“I never dreamed I would teach at a college where I would be ordered not to share facts, particularly life-saving ones with my students,” Phillips said.

Phillips also says a 2017 public letter from him and others, asking for the removal of Confederate monuments, irked college leadership. In the letter, he identified himself as a Collin College professor. The school said he violated college policy and “made the college look bad.”

Phillips teaches about race and racism and wrote the book "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas,1841-2001."

He also talked to reporters about a former Collin College student who targeted Mexicans in the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. He was chastised by the school for doing so.

Phillips told KERA, “I can prove what I’m saying. I have documents. Each time I was disciplined, it was related to free speech.”

The college said Phillips signed a contract which ends in May 2022, and “there’s no right or reasonable expectation of continued employment beyond that contract.” The school said it looked forward to defending its actions in court.

Previously dismissed Collin College professor L.D. Burnett also sued the school, citing First Amendment violations. She accepted a $70,000 payment from the school, which admitted no guilt as part of the agreement. Another longtime professor Suzanne Jones sued Collin College after her contract wasn’t renewed. And yet another professor, Audra Heaslip, had her contract terminated shortly after Burnett’s, but chose not to bring legal action.

Burnett, Jones and Phillips found legal representation from FIRE, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.