DETROIT (AP) — A Michigan professor asked a judge Wednesday to immediately reinstate him, two weeks after he was suspended for making a sarcastic video for students that included profanity and criticism of Ferris State University's COVID-19 policies.
Attorneys for Barry Mehler said his First Amendment rights were violated.
"COVID-19 is deadly. But at Ferris State University, freedom of speech and academic freedom are deadlier," they said in a request to return Mehler to teaching history.
In a 14-minute video at the start of a new term, Mehler, 74, covered a range of topics, including grades, attendance, plagiarism, COVID-19 and the HBO series "Deadwood."
He frequently dropped in profanities and told students — whom he called "vectors of disease" — they could skip in-person classes and still get a good grade by following course requirements posted online. The video has been seen more than 500,000 times on YouTube.
"If you won't expose your grandpa to a possible infection with COVID then stay... away from me," Mehler said.
"I will not take questions in class because I'm wearing this... helmet in order to stay alive," he added, a reference to a $300 astronaut-style helmet with air filters.
Ferris State, located in Big Rapids, 155 miles (250 kilometers) northwest of Detroit, encourages but doesn't require a COVID-19 vaccination.
Mehler was suspended with pay on Jan. 11 and told that he was being investigated for violating the faculty contract and the university's employee dignity policy. President David Eisler said he was appalled by the video.
In a filing in federal court, Mehler's attorneys said the professor was speaking about matters of public concern.
"These were irreverently made for the purpose of informing the public debate — making his students think critically about the issues of the day," Matthew Hoffer wrote.
Ferris State had no comment on the lawsuit.
Mehler recently told The Associated Press that he was performing when he used provocative language in the video. He said he was joking when he told students he didn't want to know their names and would hand out grades in a random manner.
"If a professor comes in and he's all high and mighty and using words they don't understand — that doesn't help them relax and think," Mehler said of students.
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