The Sixth Circuit federal appeals court has unanimously ruled that Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, violated a professor’s First Amendment rights by ordering him to use students’ preferred pronouns.
Shawnee State University, a public school in Ohio, violated a Christian professor’s constitutional rights by punishing him for refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns, ruled the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday.
In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Amul Thapar, the court said Shawnee State “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 Cincinnati-based appeals court also compared the university’s behavior to the “McCarthy era,” in which government instituted a loyalty program “to eliminate ‘subversive persons’ among government personnel.”
In 2018, professor Nicholas Meriwether — a “devout Christian” who has been a fixture at the university for 25 years — called a biological male student “sir” during class. The professor said at the time, he was not aware his student preferred female pronouns.
The court’s opinion explained that after class, the student approached Meriwether and “demanded” that he refer to him “as a woman,” and use “feminine titles and pronouns.”
This was the first time Meriwether learned that the student identified as a woman, the court says, adding that “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 [the student’s] demands,” the court adds. “[The student] became hostile — circling around Meriwether at first, and then approaching him in a threatening manner: ‘I guess this means I can call you a [cunt].”
The student then promised he would get Meriwether fired if he did not give in to his demands.
Shawnee State’s Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Roberta Milliken, later ordered the professor to begin using female pronouns when addressing the student — rather than just using his last name — or else risk violating the university’s policy.
“Soon after, Meriwether accidentally referred to Doe using the title ‘Mr.’ before immediately correcting himself,” Thapar writes, adding that the student “again complained to the university’s Title IX Coordinator and threatened to retain counsel if the university didn’t take action.”
In an attempt to find common ground, Meriwether suggested that he use student’s preferred pronouns, as long as the university allows him to put a disclaimer in his syllabus “noting that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity.”
Dean Milliken rejected the professor’s suggestion, and in a bizarre move, insisted that putting a disclaimer in the syllabus would in itself violate the university’s gender identity policy.
So Meriwether continued addressing the student by his last name.
Meriwether subsequently received a formal letter from Milliken, demanding the professor address the student in the same manner “as other students who identify themselves as female,” adding that if Meriwether did not comply, “the University may conduct an investigation,” and the professor could be subject to “informal or formal disciplinary action.”
Days later — without waiting for a response from Meriwether — Milliken announced that she was “initiating a formal investigation,” claiming that she was doing so because she had received “another complaint.”
Moreover, Provost Jeffrey Bauer “openly laughed” when Meriwether’s “union representative tried to explain the teachings of Meriwether’s church and why Meriwether felt he was being compelled to affirm a position at odds with his faith,” the court adds.
Bauer was so hostile that the union representative “was not able to present the grievance.”
The court added that the “moving target” of which university policy Meriwether violated suggests that Shawnee State designed an “after-the-fact invention” in order to justify punishing the professor.
“The Title IX report claimed that Meriwether violated the university’s gender-identity policy by creating a ‘hostile educational environment,'” the court says. “Dean Milliken agreed and recommended disciplining Meriwether for this ‘hostile environment.'”
“Yet when Meriwether grieved his discipline, university officials conceded that Meriwether had never created a hostile environment. Instead, they said the case was about ‘disparate treatment,'” the court added.
But at oral argument, the university changed its position once again: It said that “this really is a hostile-environment case.” These repeated changes in position, along with the alleged religious hostility, permit a plausible inference that the university was not applying a preexisting policy in a neutral way, but was instead using an evolving policy as pretext for targeting Meriwether’s beliefs.
“If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity,” the court continued, adding that it could get even get to the point of forcing “a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders.”
That cannot be,” the court affirms. “Public universities do not have a license to act as classroom thought police.”
The court’s opinion went on to say that “disciplin[ing] professors, students, and staff any time their speech might cause offense” is “not the law.”
The case is Meriwether v. Hartop, No. 20-3289 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.