Shawnee professor can sue university over gender identity policy, appellate court says

By: - March 29, 2021 12:50 am

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A Shawnee State philosophy professor is allowed to continue his lawsuit against the university over disciplinary action the university took after he refused to use the preferred pronouns of a student.

Nicholas Meriwether appealed to the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals after a lower court agreed to a magistrate judge’s decision to dismiss Meriwether’s claims. On Friday, the appeals court reversed that decision.

Meriwether accused the university of violating his free speech and due process rights, along with his rights under the Ohio Constitution and his contract with the university. He said as a devout Christian, his beliefs did not allow him to refer to a student by her preferred pronouns.

The case began when the university implemented a new policy requiring professors to refer to students by their preferred pronouns, even if they differed from legal names. The university confirmed to Meriwether that discipline would be leveled if a professor refused, “regardless of the professor’s convictions or views on the subject,” according to court documents.

In January 2018, Meriwether taught a class in which he referred to students as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” claiming it “helps (students) view the academic enterprise as a serious, weighty endeavor.”

One student approached him after class, informing Meriwether that she used feminine titles and pronouns.

“This was the first time that Meriwether learned that (the student) identified as a woman,” court documents stated. “So Meriwether paused before responding because his sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes are false.”

The professor told the court that the student “became hostile,” and he reported the incident to the Dean of Students and his department chair.

The complaint traveled to Acting Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, with whom Meriwether reached a compromise to “keep using pronouns to address most students in class but would refer to (the female student) using only (her) name.”

Meriwether said Shawnee State “was not willing to compromise” on his requests for accommodation for his personal and religious views, and after multiple additional complaints from the students, the case was referred to the university’s Title IX office.

Judge Amul Thapar, writing for the court of appeals, criticized the Title IX investigation as “less-than-thorough,” because of a small number of witnesses, none of whom testified about specific interactions between Meriwether and the student.

The Title IX investigation found Meriwether in violation of the university’s nondiscrimination policies, and the dean of Arts and Sciences brought a formal charge against him under the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement.

Shawnee State’s faculty union filed a grievance on Meriwether’s behalf asking the university to “vacate the disciplinary action and…allow Meriwether to keep speaking in a manner consistent with his religious beliefs,” court documents stated, but the grievance was denied.

When Meriwether filed his lawsuit, the previous court said a professor’s speech “in the classroom is never protected by the First Amendment,” but the appeals court disagreed in their Friday decision.

“Under controlling Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent, the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors,” the court wrote.

The court added that if professors lost their 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 emigre to address his students as ‘comrades,'” Thapar wrote for the court. “That cannot be.”

The court said despite the university’s policy, Meriwether “took a side” in a debate about gender identity, and in continuing to refuse to call the student by her preferred pronouns, “he advanced a viewpoint on gender identity.”

Because Meriwether attempted to propose compromises with the university, the court found the compromises “seemed like a win-win” and did not affect the student’s access to education.

“As we have already explained, there is no indication at this stage of the litigation that Meriwether’s speech inhibited (the student’s) education or ability to succeed in the classroom,” the court stated.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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