Former Professor Sues University Over COVID-19 Policy

By Alex Nunez – Staff Writer

A former University of Scranton faculty member filed a lawsuit against the University, its faculty union and the former provost over the school’s coronavirus policy. The professor, Benjamin Bishop, claims the University infringed on his First and 14th Amendment rights by forcing him to disclose his vaccination status, according to the complaint.

In an interview with The Aquinas, Bishop laid out his main criticisms of the administration’s COVID policy. Bishop said the policy denies faculty the right to bodily autonomy and medical privacy. The policy that bothered Bishop most was the University’s encouragement of reporting fellow students and staff for not following protocol.

Bishop said his main reason for filing the lawsuit was to begin a discussion around policies meant to address the COVID-19 pandemic. He argues that disclosing one’s vaccination status has become political speech. In the complaint, Bishop’s attorneys claim that what constitutes political speech can change and develop over time. Since the vaccines have become a hotly debated subject from members of both parties, the discourse surrounding vaccination has become very “toxic” and should now be considered political.

Bishop and his attorneys also argue that the University has become a state actor due to its many ties to the United States government. Bishop’s team says the University has ties with the Office of the President, the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Under the First Amendment, state actors cannot compel citizens to engage in political speech.

Bishop also claims the University has violated his 14th Amendment rights by violating his right to privacy and bodily autonomy. He reiterated his belief that the University is a state actor and as such is lawfully required to respect its employees’ medical privacy.

Additionally, both the University and its former provost, Jeffrey Gingerich, are being sued by Bishop for defamation. Bishop claims that their labeling of him as a threat to the health and safety of the campus resulted in ridicule and a “blackened character.” Bishop also accuses Gingerich of using selective enforcement to target faculty that were critical of the administration’s policies. In one of the exhibits attached to the official complaint, an email between another faculty member and Gingerich, Bishop’s legal team says Gingerich admitted to violating the administration’s mask mandate himself.

Finally, Bishop is suing the Faculty Affairs Council, the faculty union, for breach of duty of fair representation. The professor argues that the faculty union must represent every member of the union fairly, which he contends was not the case.

Bishop explained that there were multiple faculty members that voiced criticism toward the policies, which had been developed by the leadership of the Faculty Affairs Council and the University’s administration. Bishop claims that the union’s leadership sent faculty critical of the plan straight to the administration instead of raising the concerns on their behalf. He claims that a member of the union’s executive committee had represented him while having a conflict of interest. He also says that he was disallowed from attending his own dismissal hearing, even though faculty have a right to attend and cross examine witness, among other actions. Bishop alleges that he was not given any explanation for why he was barred from his hearing, as he was also disallowed from attending via Zoom.

Bishop noted that among his main grievances was opposing a COVID-19 policy he felt was “authoritarian.” “Faculty have a responsibility to stand up against policies they view as unethical,” Bishop said.

Bishop was fired on or around May 10, 2022, for not complying with the University’s COVID-19 policy. Bishop is fully vaccinated, but feels that he has the right to keep his vaccination status private. He taught at the University for roughly 19 years after teaching at the University of Georgia for 2 years.

When reached for comment, Stan Zygmunt, director of news and media relations for the university, said “the University of Scranton does not comment on pending litigation.”