A college professor who won a court case over the use of preferred gender pronouns is warning that unless others fight back, free speech in America faces grave peril.
The case dates back to 2018, when Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, called a trans woman “sir.” Meriwether said it happened by accident.
The student threatened to have Meriweather fired if not called “Ms,” touching off rounds of contention within the college. Meriweather would not bend, and called the student by his last name, rather than by any gender pronoun as he did with other students, according to Inside Higher Ed.
A U.S. district court ruled against Meriweather, who appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The appellate court sided with Meriweather.
“Well, basically if I had not [sued], I would have been fired, I would have been terminated. That was one reason. It wasn’t the only reason. The other reason was as you say, as you just said, I think we need to stand up against it, and I do think that we are losing our academic freedom.
“We’re losing our freedom to disagree, and unless and until people stand up to it, I think it’s just going to get much, much worse, much, much faster,” he said.
Attorney Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom, said the case was successful both on the grounds of free speech and free exercise of religion.
“We won on both free speech and free exercise grounds, and the Sixth 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 to weigh in on one side or the other,” she said.
“In fact, the court’s decision actually referenced what would happen if the government demanded ideological purity. It used examples like the government could then force a pacifist, for example, to have to support war. It could force a civil rights icon to criticize the freedom riders, or to even force a Christian to deny the existence of God. Those are examples that the Sixth Circuit itself recognized, and it basically said, if the government has that kind of power, it can essentially do almost anything it wants. That power is unlimited,” she said.
Writing the unanimous, three-judge opinion, Circuit Judge Amul Thapar wrote that, “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,” he 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,'” Thapar wrote.
“By forbidding Meriwether from describing his views on gender identity even in his syllabus, Shawnee State silenced a viewpoint that could have catalyzed a robust and insightful in-class discussion.”
“Never before have titles and pronouns been scrutinized as closely as they are today for their power to validate — or invalidate — someone’s perceived sex or gender identity. Meriwether took a side in that debate. Through his continued refusal to address Doe as a woman, he advanced a viewpoint on gender identity,” he wrote.
Thapar noted the college was hostile to religion.
“Meriwether next argues that as a public university, Shawnee State violated the Free Exercise Clause when it disciplined him for not following the university’s pronoun policy. We agree,” the judge wrote.
“Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State’s application of its gender-identity policy was not neutral for at least two reasons. First, officials at Shawnee State exhibited hostility to his religious beliefs. And second, irregularities in the university’s adjudication and investigation processes permit a plausible inference of non-neutrality,” Thapar wrote.
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