(New York, NY) — PEN America today objected to the effective firing of historian Lora Burnett from a public Texas community college. Burnett was told last week her contract at Collin College would not be renewed following her public criticism of the campus’ response to the pandemic and its leadership. That comes just a month after the college also failed to renew the contracts of professors Suzanne Jones and Audra Heaslip who also say they were being retaliated against for criticizing the college’s leaders.

“Collin College’s leaders appear to need a lesson in the First Amendment,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America. “It’s hard to imagine a more alarming pattern of what appears to be blatant retaliation against faculty for protected speech. Burnett, Jones, and Heaslip raised fair and important questions about the college’s handling of the pandemic, as professors have at numerous colleges across the country. That is part of their responsibility as public intellectuals, to ask tough questions and engage in debate about the public issues of the day. It can hardly be seen as reasonable grounds for termination.

“Further, the college’s leaders have failed for months to defend the basic free speech rights of their employees, some of whom have faced harassment. To see them push out Burnett, Jones, and Heaslip in quick succession is a particularly disappointing dereliction of their duty to uphold free speech as an institution of higher learning in a democracy. Speech that causes discomfort to those in power is precisely what the First Amendment was designed to protect. If this purge goes unanswered, it will cast a disturbing chill over contingent faculty across the country, making them second guess their freedom to speak in ways that might displease their institutions. Unfortunately, it likely already has.”