A District Court judge just gave the lawsuit brought against the University of Maine System for allegedly violating a former professor’s First Amendment rights the green light.
Filed by former University of Southern Maine professor Patricia Griffin, the lawsuit — Griffin v. University of Maine System et al. — accuses the University of violating Griffin’s First Amendment rights by firing her as a consequence of questioning their masking and vaccination mandates in August of 2021.
Judge Jon D. Levy of the District Court ruled earlier this month that Griffin’s suit brings a “plausible First Amendment claim” against the University and therefore ought to move forward in the legal process.
Judge Levy did determine, however, that the Eleventh Amendment prohibits Griffin from seeking back pay and a retroactive declaration that her rights were violated. That said, Griffin will be permitted to seek reinstatement at the University.
Background on the Case
On June 25, 2021, Prof. Griffin had just been granted tenure by the University of Maine System (UMS).
A couple of months later, on August 18, 2021, UMS sent out an email announcing that they would be instituting a mandatory masking policy on campus for the fall semester.
In response to this, Griffin sent an email pertaining to the mask and vaccine mandates to the Dean of the College of Management and Human Services. In her message, Griffin shared the research she had personally done on the subject which suggested to her that the policies in question were not backed by rigorous scientific evidence. She then requested that the school share with her any evidence they had found to the contrary in support of the new policies.
Griffin then met with the Dean on August 25, 2021, at which time she restated her request for more information on the evidence supporting the mask mandate.
Griffin contends that at no time did she indicate an intention to violate the school’s policy, but rather that she was simply raising concerns about it.
Immediately following this meeting, the courses that Griffin was scheduled to teach that semester were removed from the fall class list — two online and one in-person.
Two days later, a pre-disciplinary hearing was convened, and Griffin reiterated her request to see the supporting data behind the UMS masking policy.
On September 8, 2021, Griffin received a letter informing her that she had been suspended and that the University would be taking additional steps to formally terminate her employment.
Griffin alleged that in the course of these communications, the University falsely accused her of threatening to not comply with the school’s masking policy. She also argued that the letter was sent in retaliation for her earlier communications related to the school’s masking policies.
When Griffin later learned that the University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings — against whom she had previously filed a complaint for creating a hostile work environment — would be in attendance at her official disciplinary hearing, she stated that she did not feel comfortable attending.
Despite this, the University opted to hold the hearing without her. In her absence, it was decided that her employment would be terminated as of September 22, 2021.
The District Court’s Legal Analysis
In the opinion released on August 16, 2023, written by Judge Jon D. Levy, the District Court offered legal analysis of the claims made by Griffin in her lawsuit against the University of Maine System, as well as of the relief she is seeking.
First Amendment Violations
Central to this lawsuit is a debate over whether Griffin’s remarks concerning the UMS masking policy qualify as “protected speech.”
“Protected speech” is, in this context, understood to refer to speech made by a “citizen on a matter of public concern.”
As far as this lawsuit is concerned, it is contested whether Griffin was speaking as a “citizen” or in her capacity as a University employee when she issued the remarks that led to her termination.
While the University claims that Griffin “was speaking within the scope of her employment,” Griffin asserts that her comments encompassed issues that were “perhaps the most controversial political and social concerns in the community over the past two years” and therefore related to matters of “public concern.”
Griffin further argued that since she was employed as an educator — and not “to question University Policy on masks or vaccinations” — her speech falls outside the scope of her employment.
In the course of his analysis, Judge Levy cited the Supreme Court’s recognition that not all speech made in relation to one’s public employment ought to be considered within the scope of public employment. Consequently, the fact that Griffin’s speech is related to her employment by the University is “not dispositive of whether she was speaking pursuant to her official duties as a public employee.”
After analyzing a number of legal criteria that have been established for determining the proper categorization of a public employee’s speech, Judge Levy determined that Griffin’s comments could reasonably be understood as “sufficiently analogous to the speech of other citizens in the community troubled” by the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although Judge Levy acknowledges that once all the facts have come to light, it is possible that a determination may be made that Griffin did in fact speak within the scope of her employment, he says that she nonetheless has a plausible “First Amendment claim upon which relief could be granted.”
Consequently, Judge Levy ruled to allow the legal proceedings against the University to continue onward.
Griffin’s Quest for Relief
In filing this lawsuit, Griffin requested a number of forms of relief from the University of Maine System, including back pay, an official declaration that her rights had been violated, and an offer of official reinstatement by the University.
Based on an analysis of the Eleventh Amendment — informed by prior judicial decisions — Judge Levy determined that the courts would be barred from granting Griffin’s requests for back pay and a retroactive declaration, but that fulfilling her request for reinstatement would be permissible.
The University of Maine System claims that President Cummings cannot be sued as an individual by Griffin on account of his having qualified immunity.
Generally speaking, qualified immunity protects state and local officials from individual liability unless the official violated an individual’s clearly-established Constitutional right.
Griffin argued that Cummings should not enjoy the benefits of qualified immunity because he “should have obviously understood that terminating [her] for simply requesting data and raising concerns with the Policy was a violation of her First Amendment rights.”
Judge Levy determined, however, that “it would not have been clear to every reasonable official in Cummings’s position” that Griffin’s speech fell outside the scope of her employment, nor that terminating her for said speech would constitute a violation of her First Amendment rights.
Therefore, the District Court determined that Cummings is “entitled to qualified immunity” in this case.
The District Court’s Decision
As it stands now, in light of Judge Levy’s ruling, Griffin’s First Amendment claim — that her being terminated as a consequence of questioning the University’s mask mandate violated her Constitutionally protected rights — will be allowed to move forward in the legal process.
The only relief that she will be allowed to seek, however, is reinstatement at the University — as it was determined that the Eleventh Amendment prohibits her from seeking back pay or a retroactive declaration that her rights were violated by the University.
Due to the decision concerning President Cumming’s eligibility for qualified immunity, however, he cannot personally be held liable for violating Griffin’s Constitutional rights.
The law firm representing Griffin — Steve Smith Trial Lawyers — recently sent out a press release regarding Judge Levy’s ruling.
“The judge’s decision was a win for Dr. Griffin and a win for the First Amendment,” they said. “The evidence is clearer each day that mandates, mandatory masking, and mandatory vaccinations were unwise and based not upon reason and logic, but fear.”
“Dr. Griffin had the courage to disagree with the Universities’ masking policy and we believe she was terminated for daring to do so,” the law firm stated.
“The Judge’s decision makes it clear that Universities do not have the authority to terminate professors for voicing contrary opinions,” they said. “The First Amendment applies in public universities.”