An Ohio university violated the free speech rights of a professor when it disciplined and threatened him with termination for not using the preferred pronouns of a transgender student, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The controversy began in 2018, when Shawnee State University philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether said “yes, sir” to a biologically male student who identifies as female. The student approached Meriwether after class and requested to be referenced with female pronouns and titles, but Meriwether – a devout Christian – said his sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes to be false.
School officials then got involved. Meriwether proposed using only the student’s last name, but that compromise proved unworkable when the student complained again. Meriwether also offered to use the student’s proposed pronoun if he could state in the syllabus he was doing so under compulsion. The university rejected that compromise, too.
Eventually, the university placed a written warning in his file, stating that if he did not change the way he addressed transgender students – and begin using preferred pronouns – he could face “further corrective actions,” including termination.
Following a grievance process that went against Meriwether, he filed suit, arguing his constitutional rights were violated.
Although a district court dismissed his lawsuit, the U.S. Sixth Court of Appeals on Friday sided with Meriwether in a unanimous 3-0 decision. The court said the Founders “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.”
“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,” Judge Amul R. Thapar, who was nominated by President Trump, wrote for the majority. He was joined in the opinion by Judges David W. McKeague (nominated by George W. Bush) and Joan L. Larsen (Trump).
If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, Thapar wrote, “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.”
The Sixth Circuit vacated the district court’s opinion and ordered it to reconsider the case “consistent with this opinion.”
Shawnee State may have displayed hostility toward religion, Thapar wrote. The court quoted Meriwether’s department chair, Jennifer Pauley, as saying religion “oppresses students” and that its “presence” at universities is “counterproductive.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Meriwether, applauded the court’s decision.
“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 John Bursch. “We are very pleased that the Sixth 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.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Nazareth Man
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.