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Judge: Shawnee State Professor’s Use of “Wrong” Pronouns for Transgender Student Is Not Protected Speech

— February 18, 2020

The professor and his attorney say they’ll appeal the ruling.

A federal judge has dismissed an unusual lawsuit against Shawnee State University, filed by a professor who was forced to address transgender students by their preferred pronouns.

The lawsuit was filed by Nicholas Meriwether in November.

Meriwether, says The Hill, is a philosophy professor at Shawnee State. He’s also an evangelical Christian who believes transgenderism goes against God. In his complaint, Meriwether stated that using students’ preferred pronouns would have “forced him to violate his sincerely held Christian beliefs.”

Furthermore, Meriwether—who’s been teaching at Shawnee State since 1996—felt the university had “silenced” him by attempting to censor his speech.

“In January 2018, a male student demanded that Dr. Meriwether address him as a woman because he identified as such and threatened to have Dr. Meriwether fired if he declined,” the lawsuit recalls. When the professor declined to comply, the student allegedly became “belligerent,” shouting expletives and saying, “Then I guess this means I can call you a[n] [expletive].”

Gavel resting on open book; image by verkeorg, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.
Gavel resting on open book; image by verkeorg, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes.

Soon after the encounter, Meriwether received a written warning for violating aspects of Shawnee State’s non-discrimination policy. Meriwether’s attempts to challenge and appeal the reprimand were unsuccessful.

Meriwether later sued the university. The first rendition of his lawsuit was dismissed on grounds that Meriwether’s speech was not, in fact, the sort of free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

But Meriwether’s complaint was quickly dismantled by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott, who sided with the university. The Hill notes that Dlott—building atop a recommendation by Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovtiz—found that Meriwether’s speech was not protected by the First Amendment, considering his remarks were made in the course of employment.

“The speech here occurred in the context of plaintiff’s employment; it was limited to titles and pronouns used to address one student in plaintiff’s class: the speech was directed to plaintiff and heard only by her and her fellow students; and absent any further explanation or elaboration, the speech cannot reasonably be construed as having conveyed any beliefs or stated any facts about gender identity,” Dlott wrote.

Meriwether, though, expressed displeasure with the ruling and its underlying logic.

“Philosophy especially—but certainly higher education in general—is all about the free exchange of ideas, but this exchange cannot happen unless faculty and students are in fact free to share their views,” Meriwether said.

Travis Barham, an attorney for Meriwether, said he and his client will likely appeal Dlott’s decision.

“This is so wrong,” Barham said.

“Public universities have no business compelling people to express ideological beliefs that they don’t hold,” Barham said. “And we are currently evaluating our next steps with our client in ensuring that these basic principles are respected.”



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