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Ferris professor suspended over viral video sues school, seeks return

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Ferris State University professor suspended after an expletive-laden course video this month went viral is suing to be reinstated, alleging school officials violated his constitutional rights and acted in retaliation.

Barry Mehler's clip depicted his "well-known and celebrated provocative style and included criticism of the University’s COVID-19 policy along with his long-standing bits used to draw students’ attention to plagiarism and his grading policy," attorneys said in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

When the footage came to administrators’ attention, they moved "to silence his criticism," according to the filing.

Ferris State University professor Berry Mehler is on leave after posting a profanity-laced course video for students.

The lawsuit came more than two weeks after the 14-minute video posted Jan. 9 on Mehler's YouTube account as the new semester began at the Big Rapids campus.

The 74-year-old academic, who was listed as a history and humanities professor at Ferris, repeatedly used profanity while discussing topics including plagiarism, grading and the threat of COVID-19. At one point, he was recorded as saying he saw students in a classroom as "vectors of disease."

“... If you want to expose your grandpa to a possible infection with COVID, then stay the f--- away from me," Mehler said in the video. "If you don't give a s--- about whether grandpa lives or dies, by all means, come to class."

Within days, he was placed on leave. Ferris President David Eisler said at the time he was "shocked and appalled by this video. It is profane, offensive and disturbing and in no way reflects our University or its values."

Mehler told the Associated Press his video was simply a humorous attempt “to get (students') juices flowing" and a "performance."

“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,” he said.

In Mehler's lawsuit, attorneys argue he is a distinguished academic who has taught at Ferris for more than 30 years, won awards and "developed a unique pedagogy where his courses are designed as a TV variety show. ... Dr. Mehler’s proactive teaching style and The Show, including his use of profanity, is well known to FSU and cherished by its students, has been brought to FSU’s attention on multiple occasions and has been celebrated beyond just Dr. Mehler’s classroom."

Ferris' representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday night, nor did a lawyer listed in court records as defending the university.

Mehler's lawsuit said a Ferris dean informed him he was being suspended pending an investigation for alleged violations of the university Employee and Student Dignity policy.

His Lansing-based attorneys argue the school violated the professor's First and Fourteenth amendment rights since the video covered "numerous matters of public concern" and was related to the course.

"By removing Dr. Mehler’s faculty bio page, his classes’ Canvas pages, suspending him from teaching, banning him from campus, ordering him to refrain from contact with current or former students or colleagues ... Defendants’ actions has chilled Dr. Mehler’s, and would chill other persons or professors of ordinary firmness, academic freedoms to discuss, among other things, controversial topics, to criticize the government, to take creative pedagogical approaches to learning and instruction, and to discuss matters of public concern," they said.

The lawsuit sought to have him immediately returned to teaching for the spring semester.

His lawyers also filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction Wednesday, saying the school "would suffer no harm by allowing Dr. Mehler to resume his teaching schedule."

U.S. District Judge Jane Beckering denied the request, saying "the immediate issuance of a temporary restraining order without notice to all Defendants is not justified."

A hearing is scheduled for March 7 in Grand Rapids.