by Tom Rabbe
In a refreshing religious liberty result from the world of academia, free speech won and preferred pronouns lost.
A professor at Shawnee State University, in Portsmouth, Ohio, will be able to honor his conscience as a Christian who believes God created human beings as male and female and that a person’s sex cannot change, and will not be required by the school to compromise that belief when addressing students.
Shawnee State on Thursday settled with philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether, agreeing that he can choose whether to use or not use, and when to use or not use, pronouns when addressing students, including in instances where students demand he use pronouns that do not comport with their biological sex. In short, he may address students in a way consistent with his religious beliefs. Also, he will receive $400,000 for the four years of trouble the university has put him through.
That trouble began in 2018, when, in a political philosophy class, Meriwether called on a student with the formal title “Sir.” Refreshingly, as is his wont, Meriwether likes a little formality in pedagogy. He calls his students “Sir” or “Ma’am,” or by a title, “Mr.” or “Miss,” followed by their last names. “The formality,” he says, “fosters an atmosphere of seriousness, mutual respect, and courtesy.”
Alas, the addressed student, a transgender female, took exception to the word “Sir” and approached Meriwether after class, identifying himself as a woman and, said Meriwether, “insisting that I refer to him as such, using feminine terms.” The student got “belligerent” when Meriwether balked at his demands, further intimidated the teacher, and promised to get him fired if he did not comply.
Meriwether sought compromise: he said he would refer to the aggrieved student by any name he preferred, sans pronouns, and drop sex-specific titles like “Sir” or “Ma’am” for him. That way, the student wouldn’t be offended by Meriwether’s use of a pronoun he didn’t like, and the professor wouldn’t have to use a pronoun that violated his conscience.
University officials, while initially supporting this pronominal win-win, caved soon enough and meted out condign punishment for the professor’s transgression against transgender orthodoxy: Meriwether must either use, for all students, identity-based terms, including, if so chosen, neologisms of recent coinage — the zir’s, zie’s, and zim’s of transgender nomenclature — or “eliminate all sex-referencing terms” from his vocabulary at all times. “This,” Meriwether says, “would have required me to speak English as it has never been spoken in the history of the language.”
Meriwether refused the strictures and, with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, sued the college for violation of his First Amendment rights of free speech and free expression of religion. The district court ruled against him and dismissed his case.
His appeal to a higher court, however, bore fruit. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal of his case in March 2021, ruling that Shawnee State violated Meriwether’s First Amendment rights. The court opined:
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 the First Amendment. The district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.
Continuing, the Sixth Circuit opinion said, “[If] professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as ‘comrades.’ That cannot be.”
Some on the Left reacted to the Circuit Court’s 2021 ruling with customary composure. Andrew Koppelman, a political science professor and constitutional law expert at Northwestern University, led a piece in the Hill with this: “Do teachers have the right to address their students with racial slurs? Is hostile environment harassment law unconstitutional? Those are among the alarming implications of a recent federal court decision.”
The sanctity of preferred pronouns took a hit, obviously, in the circuit court’s ruling — a correction toward sanity, as it were — but the decision also putatively leads to greater sins.
Koppelman, in a Columbus Dispatch story published on Tuesday, predicted the Sixth Circuit’s decision allowing a professor to follow his conscience could lead to blatant racism and sexism on college campuses: “The principle announced (by the 6th Circuit) would apply equally to a professor who from time to time addressed African American students by the N-word or who refused to call on African American students or who refused to call on women because he thought that neither of those groups ought to participate in class discussion.”
Meriwether said his lawsuit was not only about preferred pronouns. “I think that’s … a side issue,” he said. “What this case is really about is requiring professors to adhere or conform to an ideology that the professors do not agree with.”
Alliance Defending Freedom counsel Travis Barham said, “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.”
Tyson Langhofer, also with the Alliance Defending Freedom, added, “Dr. Meriwether rightly defended his freedom to speak and stay silent, and not conform to the university’s demand for uniformity of thought. We commend the university for ultimately agreeing to do the right thing, in keeping with its reason for existence as a marketplace of ideas.”
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Tom Raabe is a writer and editor living in Tempe, Arizona.
Image “Dr. Nicholas Meriwether” by Alliance Defending Freedom.