A former professor of marketing at the University of Southern Maine claims she was fired three months after getting tenure for seeking scientific information about how wearing face masks limits spread of COVID-19.
Patricia Griffin, 66, of Old Orchard Beach sued USM, former President Glenn Cummings and the University of Maine System on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland.
Griffin claims that she never refused to wear a mask while teaching.
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She is seeking damages of more than $100,000 for pain and suffering, back pay and benefits, past and future economic, loss of reputation, emotional distress and the loss of life’s pleasures.
Margaret Nagle, interim spokesperson for the system, did not comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit.
“The University of Maine System will vigorously defend itself and the other named parties against this lawsuit,” she said. “We look forward to presenting the facts in court.”
Griffin’s attorney, Stephen Smith of Augusta, said Friday that she has not yet found a new job. He said that Maine’s universities should be “an arena where debate and freedom of speech are encouraged and cultivated.”
“Female faculty members are also supposed to be treated no differently than male faculty members,” Smith said. “In Dr. Griffin’s case, she was quickly suspended and terminated when she dared to ask for data supporting the mask mandate. She was treated differently from similarly situated male professors and high-level male administrators.”
He previously represented Maine business owners who sued Gov. Janet Mills early in the pandemic over shutdowns. That lawsuit was later withdrawn.
Griffin began teaching at USM in Gorham and Portland in 2015 and was granted tenure on June 25, 2021, according to the complaint. In mid-August 2021, the second year of the pandemic, the university implemented a mandatory mask policy but Cummings allegedly did not wear one at a luncheon that Griffin attended remotely.
Subsequently, Griffin asked the dean of the College of Management and Human Service, who was not sued, for scientific data and studies to support the mask mandate. Nothing was provided to her, the complaint said. Immediately after an online meeting with the dean, Griffin’s one in-person and two online classes allegedly were removed from the fall semester’s schedule.
During a pre-disciplinary hearing on Aug. 27, 2021, Griffin was told that she would not be allowed to teach all of her classes remotely although some male professors had been allowed to do so, the complaint alleged. Griffin allegedly was told at that same hearing that she would only be allowed to hold all of her classes online if she resigned her full-time position and agreed to work part-time.
On Sept. 8, then-President Cummings sent Griffin a letter in which he falsely claimed that she had refused to follow the mask policy, which caused Griffin emotional distress, according to the complaint. She allegedly refused to attend a hearing on her employment status because Cummings would be in attendance.
Griffin allegedly was fired effective Sept. 22.
The lawsuit claims that the university violated her First Amendment right to free speech and her 14th Amendment right to due process. Griffin also claims her termination violated the Maine Human Rights Act because USM allowed male professors to teach classes remotely.