UMaine Professor Fired For Criticizing Mask Mandates Fighting for Her Free Speech Rights


A University of Southern Maine professor has filed a lawsuit against the UMaine system alleging that she was wrongfully fired after she criticized the system’s COVID-19 mask mandate.

Dr. Patricia Griffin’s civil case against the University of Maine — Griffin v. University of Maine System, University of Southern Maine, Glenn Cummings — is still in its early stages, but the outcome will have major implications for the freedom of UMaine employees to criticize the system’s policies.

While the university said they fired Griffin because she refused to obey the mandate that she wear a mask, Griffin says the allegation is false. She never disobeyed the requirement, despite disagreeing with it.

Her crime, she says, was merely challenging the policy by asking for data to support it, an inquiry she was inspired to make after seeing Cummings openly flaunting the mandate at a meeting, going maskless in settings where the requirement ought to have applied.

But after she made that request for data backing up the policy, the UMaine system began taking a series of actions against her that culminated in her firing.

The chancellor of the UMaine system declared that all students and employees must mask their faces in public settings on Aug. 18, 2021.

A few days later, Griffin asked Joanne Williams, the dean of the College of Management and Human Service, for studies that showed masking was an effective technique for preventing the transmission of COVID-19. In that email, Griffin provided studies that suggested masks were poor measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Her pursuit of data to support the UMaine policy led to a Zoom meeting with Williams on Aug. 25 in which she reiterated her request and noted that Cummings had failed to abide by the mask mandate at a recent public meeting.

“Immediately after the meeting, Griffin’s courses were removed,” the lawsuit states.

When her courses began disappearing from the university’s website, that’s when she started to suspect the system was retaliating against her. After delisting her courses, she says university officials then began to change the policies concerning her coursework, forcing her to meet requirements which were not applied to her male colleagues.

Later, in a letter terminating her employment, university officials, including Cummings, claimed that Griffin had said she would not comply with the mask mandate.

Griffin says this is false. Although she opposed the mandate and requested data backing it, she says she never violated the mandate or even said she would violate the mandate.

Griffin filed the lawsuit against Cummings and the UMaine system in district court last July.

In the lawsuit, Griffin’s lawyers claim her firing was a violation of her First Amendment right to free speech, as well as the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects those who expose improper conduct.

“In order to retaliate against [Griffin] for engaging in protected activities, [UMaine] intentionally took adverse action against [Griffin] by wrongfully and improperly removing her courses, suspending her, and terminating her employment,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit seeks to enjoin the University from firing people for expressing their beliefs and views, as well as to recover financial damages.

Griffin referred the Maine Wire to her attorney for comment.

“I think she’s got the right to speak out about whatever she wants, whether it’s masking, North Korea or football,” said Smith.

He said the case was in preliminary stages and that the university had filed a motion to have it dismissed. Once that motion is dealt with, the court will schedule further proceedings.

“We’re in early innings, we’ve got a long road,” he said.

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.

According to the website, Griffin was a well-liked professor at UMaine.

100 percent of students who rated her class said they would take it again.

UPDATE: The Tory Ryden, strategic advisor and director of external affairs for the UMaine system, provided the following comment for this story:

“The University of Maine System cannot comment on this currently pending litigation matter.”

“To your query regarding whether the University of Maine system is committed to free speech of all community members, I confirm you will find the answer is yes–and this link will take you to the “freedom of speech” statement for UMS.”

The UMaine statement on Freedom of Speech reads as follows: “The University of Maine System is committed to protecting the rights all University community members and invited speakers to share free speech, which includes free expression and assembly, as enshrined in the U.S. and Maine State Constitutions.”


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