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Professor fired after questioning mask mandate battles university in wrongful termination lawsuit

‘Dr. Griffin made reasonable inquiries about the usefulness of wearing masks. … She was punished for her heresy,’ attorney says

A professor who claims she was fired after questioning her university’s mask mandate continues to fight a legal battle in the courts with her former employers.

Most recently, the University of Southern Maine has asked a judge to dismiss the 2022 lawsuit, and the court has yet to hand down a ruling on that motion.

The lawsuit was filed by Patricia Griffin, who had been a tenured professor in USM’s business school.

Griffin claims in the lawsuit that the university’s actions were “intentional, willful, and reckless” and designed to retaliate against her “for her exercise of fundamental First Amendment rights.”

In August 2021, the University of Maine system announced it would require all students and employees to wear masks in public settings.

In an email exchange with Joanne Williams, dean of USM’s College of Management and Human Service, Griffin requested studies supporting the efficacy of masks and provided studies suggesting masks are ineffective against COVID-19, according to the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by The College Fix.

Shortly thereafter, the lawsuit alleges, USM removed Griffin’s courses from its website.

In September 2021, Griffin was sent a termination of employment letter that alleged Griffin had said she would not abide by the mask mandate. Griffin disagreed with the university, saying that though she criticized the mask mandate, she did not violate it, according to the suit.

In July 2022, she filed a lawsuit against the University of Maine system, the University of Southern Maine, and its president.

Steve Smith, Griffin’s lawyer, told The College Fix via email that “Dr. Griffin made reasonable inquiries about the usefulness of wearing masks. … She was punished for her heresy.”

The University of Maine system declined to comment on the lawsuit. However, Tory Ryden, a spokesperson for the system, told The College Fix via email that the “University of Maine system is committed to free speech of all community members.”

Griffin’s lawsuit alleges that the university wrongfully fired her and violated both her First Amendment right to free speech and the Whistleblower Protection Act. Griffin also claims the university violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination.

Griffin alleged USM treated her “differently” on the basis of her gender, the lawsuit alleges. As evidence, she cited in court documents an instance in which Glenn Cummings, president of USM, violated the mask mandate but did not suffer retribution.

Smith told The Fix that scholars who “toed the company line” were allowed various accommodations that Professor Griffin was not. In her lawsuit, Griffin alleges that male coworkers were allowed to teach their classes online, but she was not.

The university has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. According to the university, even if all the claims made by Griffin are true, they would be insufficient to establish or justify a legal cause of action.

The court has yet to rule on the motion.

The Maine Wire reported Feb. 15 the “outcome of the case will have serious implications for public employees’ rights to freedom of speech and the academic freedom of all UMaine professors.”

“A loss for Griffin would have a chilling effect on professors and other university employees who might think twice before criticizing an official edict from the university.”

MORE: UChicago columnist fired after challenging fellow columnist to debate mask mandates

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Mary Mobley is a student at The Master's University majoring in political studies with an emphasis in constitutional law.