“By forbidding Meriwether from describing his views on gender identity even in his syllabus, Shawnee State silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion.”
The level of speech control on campuses in mind-numbing. If you’ve followed the dozens, maybe hundreds, of cases and incidents we’ve covered in the last decade, you’d know that campuses are the most intolerant places in the country, though corporations are catching up quickly.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals just handed a victory to Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University, who committed the thought crime of refusing to obey a student’s demand to use the student’s preferred pronoun.
Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Dr. Meriwether, provides this background summary of the case:
Dr. Nicholas Meriwether has spent more than two decades as a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in southern Ohio, where he has focused his scholarship and teaching on the intersection of philosophy, ethics, religion, and political theory. During a political philosophy class he was teaching, Professor Meriwether responded to a male student’s question by saying, “Yes, sir.” Professor Meriwether responded in this fashion because he refers to all his students as “sir” or “ma’am” or by a title (Mr. or Miss, for example) followed by their last name to foster an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect. After the class, the student approached Professor Meriwether, stated that he was transgender, and demanded that the professor refer to him as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. When Meriwether did not instantly agree, the student became belligerent, circling around Meriwether and getting in his face in a threatening fashion while telling him, “Then I guess this means I can call you a c**t.” Before walking away, the student promised to get Meriwether fired if he did not agree to the student’s demands.
Although Professor Meriwether offered to use any name the student preferred, the university was not willing to accept that compromise, choosing instead to force the professor to speak and act contrary to his own Christian convictions. A lower court affirmed the university’s actions, prompting Alliance Defending Freedom Attorneys to appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
The Sixth Circuit just ruled. ADF writes:
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled Friday in favor of Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University, reversing a district court’s dismissal of his lawsuit against university officials. The university punished Meriwether because he declined a male student’s demand to be referred to as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. The court ruled that, based on the allegations in the complaint, the university violated Meriwether’s First Amendment rights.
“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief—that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “We are very pleased that the 6th Circuit affirmed the constitutional right of public university professors to speak and lead discussions, even on hotly contested issues. The freedoms of speech and religion must be vigorously protected if universities are to remain places where ideas can be debated and learning can take place.”
You can read the Opinion here. It provides, in the opening paragraph:
Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. They have prided themselves on being forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated. And they have tried not to stifle debate by picking sides. But Shawnee State chose a different route: It punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue. And it did so despite the constitutional protections afforded by theFirst Amendment. The district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.
The Opinion also sets forth some of the background — a background you could find an many, if not most, campuses (emphasis added):
At the start of the school year, Shawnee State emailed the faculty informing them that they had to refer to students by their “preferred pronoun[s].” Id. at 1471–72. Meriwether asked university officials for more details about the new pronoun policy, and the officials confirmed that professors would be disciplined if they “refused to use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity.” Id. at 1472. What if a professor had moral or religious objections? That didn’t matter: The policy applied “regardless of the professor’s convictions orviews on the subject.” Id….
Meriwether continued to teach students without incident until January 2018. On the first day of class, Meriwether was using the Socratic method to lead discussion in his course on Political Philosophy. When using that method, he addresses students as “Mr.” or “Ms.” Hebelieves “this formal manner of addressing students helps them view the academic enterprise as a serious, weighty endeavor” and “foster[s] an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect.” Id. at 1475. He “has found that addressing students in this fashion is an important pedagogical tool in all of his classes, but especially in Political Philosophy where he and [the] students discuss many of the most controversial issues of public concern.” Id. In that first class, one of the students Meriwether called on was Doe. According to Meriwether, “no one . . . would have assumed that [Doe] was female” based on Doe’s outward appearances. Id. at 1474. Thus, Meriwether responded to a question from Doe by saying, “Yes, sir.” Id. This was Meriwether’s first time meeting Doe, and the university had not provided Meriwether with any information about Doe’s sex or gender identity.
After class, Doe approached Meriwether and “demanded” that Meriwether “refer to [Doe] as a woman” and use “feminine titles and pronouns.” Id. at1475. This was the first time that Meriwether learned that Doe identified as a woman. So Meriwether paused before responding because his sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes are false. He explained that he wasn’t sure if he could comply with Doe’s demands. Doe became hostile—circling around Meriwether at first, and then approaching him in a threatening manner: “I guess this means I can call you a cu–.” Id. Doe promised that Meriwether would be fired if he did not give in to Doe’s demands.
Dr. Meriwether was willing to use the student’s last name, thus avoiding a pronoun, when addressing the student, but that ultimately didn’t fly. You can guess the rest that led to the lawsuit:
Shawnee State’s Title IX office concluded that “Meriwether’s disparate treatment [of Doe] ha[d] created a hostile environment” in violation of the university’s nondiscrimination policies….
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Out of options at Shawnee State, Meriwether filed this lawsuit. He alleged that the university violated his rights under: (1) the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment; (2) the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) the Ohio Constitution; and (4) his contract with the university.
The Court ruled:
“Universities have historically been fierce guardians of intellectual debate and free speech.” Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel, 939 F.3d 756, 761 (6th Cir. 2019). But here, Meriwether alleges that Shawnee State’s application of its gender-identity policy violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The district court rejected this argument and held that a professor’s speech in the classroom is never protected by the First Amendment. We disagree: Under controlling Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent, the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors. Since Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom, his free-speech claim may proceed.
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By forbidding Meriwether from describing his views on gender identity even in his syllabus, Shawnee State silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion. Under the First Amendment, “the mere dissemination of ideas . . . on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Papish v. Bd. of Curators of the Univ. of Mo., 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) (per curiam). Rather, the lesson of Pickering and the Court’s academic-freedom decisions is that the state may do so only when its interest in restricting a professor’s in-class speech outweighs his interest in speaking. Remember, too, that the university’s position on titles and pronouns goes both ways. By defendants’ logic, a university could likewise prohibit professors from addressing university students by their preferred gender pronouns—no matter the professors’ own views. And it could even impose such a restriction while denying professors the ability to explain to students why they were doing so. But that’s simply not the case. Without sufficient justification, the state cannot wield its authority to categorically silence dissenting viewpoints.
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In sum, “the Founders of this Nation . . . ‘believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.’” Dale, 530 U.S. at 660–61 (quoting Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring)). Shawnee State allegedly flouted that core principle of the First Amendment. Taking the allegations as true, we hold that the university violated Meriwether’s free-speech rights.5
Another legal victory for free speech. Administrators will learn nothing. They will double down, trying to find some other avenue to enforce intellectual conformity.
Dr. Meriwether lives to fight another day back in the District Court, but like almost all who have come before him, his fight is far from over.DONATE
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