A federal court ruled March 26 that Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, violated a professor’s First Amendment rights when it punished him for declining to address a male student by feminine titles and pronouns.
“We won on both free speech and free exercise grounds,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) General Counsel Kristen Waggoner told Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said very clearly that the use of titles and pronouns is a part of a debate that this nation is engaging in right now, and that those terms are infused with great meaning. That it is not the government’s role to set the terms of that debate or weigh in on one side or the other.”
The controversy began in 2018 when philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether responded “Yes, sir” to a biologically male student who identifies as female.
After the incident, the student approached Meriwether and demanded the professor refer to him as a woman. Meriwether, a devout Christian, offered to use the student’s first or last name instead, but the student refused the compromise.
The student then filed a complaint with the university, which launched a formal investigation through the school’s Title IX office.
Meriwether told university officials that he was willing to call the student by any name that aligned with his conscience and sincerely held religious beliefs. But the school rejected any arrangement other than the use of preferred pronouns or the elimination of sex-based pronouns altogether.
Shawnee officials instead formally charged Meriwether, claiming he “created a hostile environment” for the student. Later, a written warning was placed in his personnel file and officials threatened “further corrective actions” unless Meriwether fell in line with Shawnee’s pronoun policy.
Meriwether, with the help of ADF, filed suit against the university on the grounds that his rights to free speech and religious liberty were violated, as well as his rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott threw out Meriwether’s lawsuit on Feb. 12, 2020, holding that a professor’s speech in the classroom is never protected by the First Amendment. But Meriwether appealed that decision to the 6th Circuit.
The appeals court reversed the lower court’s ruling, handing Shawnee State University a sharp rebuke.
“Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom,” the opinion, written by Judge Amul Thapar and joined by Judge Joan Larsen and Senior Judge David McKeague, began. “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,” the opinion plainly stated.
The case now returns to the same Cincinnati judge who dismissed it in February 2020.
Meriwether vows to keep fighting, telling Fox News: “We are losing our freedom to disagree, and until people stand up to it, I think it’s just going to get much, much worse much, much faster.”
Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom