Shawnee State professor settles case, won’t be required to use identified pronouns

By: - April 21, 2022 3:45 am

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A professor who sued an Ohio university over punishment for refusing to use a student’s pronouns will receive a six-figure settlement from the school.

Shawnee State University said four years of litigation resulted in an “economic decision” to settle with philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether.

“Over the course of this lawsuit, it became clear that the case was being used to advance divisive social and political agendas at a cost to the university and its students,” the university said in a statement after the settlement. “That cost is better spent on fulfilling Shawnee State’s mission of service to our students, families and community.”

Meriwether was disciplined after a student filed a complaint saying the professor was asked to use the pronouns identified by the transgender student, but refused to do so because of his religious views.

The professor, who has taught classes in philosophy and religion, including History of Christian Thought, said in court documents he believes “sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.”

He argued he attempted to come to a compromise with the student and the university by offering to use the student’s first or last name, but was resolute that he would not refer to the student by the pronouns she told him to use.

The university, which is a public institution with an undergraduate population of more than 3,000, said they had informed faculty at the beginning of the school year that the school’s policy said students should be referred to by their preferred pronouns, and would discipline professors who failed to comply. Meriwether pushed back against the policy before the incident in his class occurred.

In March 2021, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court decision, and ruled Meriwether had the right to sue Shawnee State on claims of First Amendment violations.

Circuit Judge Amul Thapar wrote in the opinion from the court of appeals that the university “punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue,” and did so “despite the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment.”

The university provided a copy of the settlement to the OCJ. In the settlement, the university denies depriving Meriwether of his constitutional rights, but also agrees that Meriwether will not be required to “address or refer to any person, including students identifying as transgender, using pronouns or titles corresponding to their gender identity and that conflict with their biological sex.”

Shawnee State also agreed to remove a written warning from Meriwether’s file regarding the pronoun usage.

Meriwether will receive $395,000 in attorneys fees, along with punitive damages of $5,000 from the university.

The attorneys for Meriwether, from the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, filed for a voluntary dismissal in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio because of the settlement.

“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief—that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” said ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in a statement.

LGBTQ+ organizations in Ohio spoke out against the decision, saying names and pronouns are a matter or respect, more than a policy or procedure.

“The right of free speech is not the right to be free from the existence of other identities, and it must give way to the right of dignity that every individual holds,” said MD Spicer-Sitzes, communications manager for Equality Ohio.

Equality Ohio believes the lawsuit “has been weaponized by a small group of people in order to perpetuate disinformation about what (federal civil rights law) Title IX requires.”

“We are concerned about the (effects) this settlement could have on students, staff and faculty who identify as LGBTQ+ or ally with the community, especially transgender and non-binary students,” Spicer-Sitzes added.



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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 (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.