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Professor Who Refused To Obey “Preferred Pronouns” Can Continue Lawsuit, Appeals Court Rules

Professor Who Refused To Obey “Preferred Pronouns” Can Continue Lawsuit, Appeals Court Rules

“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….

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.


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Two dozen more decisions like this and plenty of awarded damages may have a deterrent effect. Though I won’t hold my breath.

It amazes me that the folks who demand that they be allowed to ‘be themselves’ refuse to acknowledge that someone else can hold and express contrary viewpoints while ‘being themselves’.

It’s one thing to tolerate opposing viewpoints, demanding an endorsement of one viewpoint and the exclusion of all other viewpoints is quite another.

This story reeks of Title VII violation

Like all the other cases that preceded this case, Dr. Meriwether is being forced to speak in a way the University deems appropriate and the peg they hang their hat on is always a disparate treatment that created a “hostile environment” in violation of the university’s non-discrimination policies. Finally, we have a liberal arts professor with the gumption to call BS and fight back.

A superb opinion from Judge Thapar. The United States is very fortunate to have judges who respect the rule of law.

There’s a terribly simple fix for this – make the enemy live up to his own rules.

Every student who objects to this sort of thing needs to start changing their pronouns and gender every day – after all, gender is fluid, and self-assigned, right – and filing formal complaints against every professor who slips up, even once.

Are pronouns downstream from identity?

George_Kaplan | March 26, 2021 at 11:46 pm

This is completely back to front. It was Doe that created a hostile environment after Meriweather treated him equitably. Doe complain at not being given preferential treatment and the university immediately violated nondiscrimination law and denied him his 1st Amendment rights.

Up is down, right is wrong, good is evil. How can the West hope to survive in such an intrinsically disordered state?

    DaveGinOly in reply to George_Kaplan. | March 27, 2021 at 12:32 am

    “In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.”
    Anthony Malcolm Daniels writing as “Theodore Dalrymple”
    English cultural critic, prison doctor, and psychiatrist

    “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

    gonzotx in reply to George_Kaplan. | March 27, 2021 at 12:33 pm

    We won’t

Now, for a perfectly happy ending the student would be expelled for antisocial behavior and threats, and given a one-way ticket to Smith College.

I always told my students I would happily refer to them as “he”, “she,” or “it,” but I would not use the plural “they” or “them” unless they had a pet mouse in their pocket.

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….

Why was Meriwether’s treatment of Doe “disparate”? Because he treated the other students by referring to them with their preferred pronouns, and refused to do so for Doe? But that is almost certainly not what happened.
Meriwether was almost certainly not aware of any of the students’ preferred pronouns, and was addressing each in a manner that he thought appropriate based upon their physical appearance. This happened to comport with how those students identified themselves, but that was literally coincidence. When Meriwether “misgendered” Doe, he didn’t do that by way of treating Doe differently from the others, and not calling Doe by Doe’s preferred pronouns, he did it on the same basis by which he assigned pronouns to every other student – according to physical appearance. In doing so, he treated Doe exactly like the other students, and not “disparate(ly)”.

Also, it can’t be assumed that his refusal to use Doe’s pronouns after being alerted to them is evidence that Meriwether was treating Doe differently, because no other student made a similar demand. If Meriwether had conceded the use of special pronouns to another student while refusing to use Doe’s preferred pronouns, only then could it be said that Meriwether was treating Doe differently – differently from another student making the same demand. Doe’s case is unique, a sample size of one – there is no other situation with respect to Meriwether’s conduct against which his conduct vis-à-vis Doe can be judged.

southern commenter | March 27, 2021 at 12:53 am

Did Pocahontas Warren go to school here? Asking for a friend.

I hate to point this out but just about everyone on “our” side has caved on this issue. Maybe not in private but in public. Did any senator protest having to refer to that cross-dressing pervert Rachel Levine in feminine terms? Even one? Everyone is doing this. Every. Single. One.

We should be fighting ths fight every single moment of every day at each opportunity. Let them sue us all. How creepy have WE become? Let’s have THAT fight right now! It’s a fight we would easily win on the streets! Just like the masks.

Don’t hold your breath. We’ve all gone soft.

    gonzotx in reply to Pasadena Phil. | March 27, 2021 at 12:35 pm

    I wondered the same

    “everyone on “our” side …”

    You must mean the GOP. Not Donald Trump and his ilk – or our ilk.

    Donald will rue the day he decided not to form a new political party. The GOP is garbage, and always will exist solely to stab us in the back.

      Ahem. I wrote just about everyone on “our” side”. Big difference.

      And I disagree on Trump having made a mistake. It’s up to us to help Trump gut the GOP in 2022. It’s looking like more and more GOP squishes will not be running for re-election next year which wouldn’t be the case were Trump starting a new second party. It’s easier to gut a very unpopular party than it is create a new party. It is very clear that most of even the “Freedom Coalition” is hopeless. I give up on Jim Jordan e.g. so Trump pretty much has to do it himself. With our support of course. We have to be there ourselves to make this worth. That means enough already with the defeatism. We are winning.

        HImmanuelson in reply to Pasadena Phil. | April 2, 2021 at 11:33 pm

        I can’t think of a more effective way to ensure that Harris is president in 2024 and the Republicans lose more seats in the House and Senate.

        There is a fairly large group of moderate Republicans and independents that will never vote for Trump again, and that includes me. And I voted for him both times in the past.

        If Trump runs again in 2024, Harris wins. It’s that simple.

        If Trump works hard to attack moderate Republicans in the senate and house, and successfully primaries the moderates in blue or blue-leaning states then the Dems will take those seats and you’ll be crying in 2 years as the Republicans move farther away from control.

        Those very moderate Republicans that you cry about not being conservative enough are voting the way they are because that’s what their blue or blue-leaning constituents WANT. Replace them with a hardcore Republican and see what happens, lol.

    tbonesays in reply to Pasadena Phil. | March 30, 2021 at 5:11 pm

    Fox News overnight just started using preferred pronouns, sometimes without an asterisk or context.

    By surrendering before the battle they told the rest of us that we have to lie. The Prof clearly doesn’t believe a man can change into a woman but the U is forcing him to say it.

This tranny pathological narcissism and its attendant totalitarianism is completely odious. Merely the latest manifestation of the Dhimmi-crats’ intrinsic narcissism and totalitarianism.

It all comes from a mistake in civil rights law. It should have restricted freedom of association only in cases of monopoly (de factor or dejure) markets.

As it is, you need another constitutional right to battle it and its descendants with, like freedom of religion, where you need sincerely held beliefs. When it’s really just a problem of coerced speech, that apparently atheists won’t have access to.

My own preferred pronoun is “whom,” for its note of dignity and austerity.

It’s pronounced: your majesty. We are not amused.

Take a knee. Beg. Good girl.

Neuter is the proper gender for those who have removed their reproductive organs in attempt to change their gender.

The proper pronoun is “it”.

civisamericanus | March 29, 2021 at 12:00 pm

” Before walking away, the student promised to get Meriwether fired if he did not agree to the student’s demands.” The student’s name should be made public for the benefit of potential employers who might not somebody around who threatens to get other people fired over private or social media disputes. This should be done with all “cancelers” including the Cornell law students and alumni who tried to get Prof. Jacobson fired. (Not for disagreeing with him and also me about Black Lives Matter’s behavior, but for trying to damage him professionally.)

Thank you for reporting on this. I don’t mean to detract from your main points, but I’d like to comment on your use of the phrase, “…just handed a victory…” in the sentence that begins, “The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals just handed a victory…”

Maybe that information is accurate, but courts shouldn’t be in the business of handing out victories. That implies they are taking sides. They should be weighing the evidence and making rulings based on the law and the evidence, shouldn’t they? That’s different from handing out victories.

It bothers me when I see news media reports use that wording. I think it is destructive to our understanding of what courts are supposed to do.

GypsyWanderer | March 30, 2021 at 4:03 pm

This transgender person, as ALL transgender people, should be referred to as Mystery Doe, as it is truly a mystery who that person is!! A male with male private parts, but female? with zero female parts, but wears female clothes & makeup on a distinctly male face — so a drag queen gay man?? Truly a mystery???!!!!!!!!