The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that philosophy professor Dr. Nicholas Meriwether can continue his lawsuit against Shawnee State University, because the details show that the university violated his First Amendment rights.
The longtime professor was reprimanded formally by the public university for not calling a male by female pronouns, and he was under threat of further punishment, including possible suspension, to use them in the future.
Meriwether’s case is being handled by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which offers this synopsis of what happened that prompted his lawsuit.
During a political philosophy class he was teaching, Professor Meriwether responded to a male student’s question by saying, “Yes, sir.” Professor Meriwether responded in this fashion because he refers to all his students as “sir” or “ma’am” or by a title (Mr. or Miss, for example) followed by their last name to foster an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect. After the class, the student approached Professor Meriwether, stated that he was transgender, and demanded that the professor refer to him as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. When Meriwether did not instantly agree, the student became belligerent, circling around Meriwether and getting in his face in a threatening fashion while telling him, “Then I guess this means I can call you a c**t.” Before walking away, the student promised to get Meriwether fired if he did not agree to the student’s demands.
Although Professor Meriwether offered to use any name the student preferred, the university was not willing to accept that compromise, choosing instead to force the professor to speak and act contrary to his own Christian convictions. A lower court affirmed the university’s actions, prompting Alliance Defending Freedom Attorneys to appeal the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
A lower court tossed the lawsuit, but the Sixth overturned that and will allow the lawsuit to proceed.
The opinion was itself pretty blistering, as Legal Insurrection explains.
The opening is great:
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 theFirst Amendment. The district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.
The decision doesn’t merely say he has the right to pursue the lawsuit. It holds and espouses the view that the University’s actions were, on their face, plainly unconstitutional.
“Universities have historically been fierce guardians of intellectual debate and free speech.” Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel, 939 F.3d 756, 761 (6th Cir. 2019). But here, Meriwether alleges that Shawnee State’s application of its gender-identity policy violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. The district court rejected this argument and held that a professor’s speech in the classroom is never protected by the First Amendment. We disagree: Under controlling Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent, the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors. Since Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom, his free-speech claim may proceed.
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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. Under the First Amendment, “the mere dissemination of ideas . . . on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Papish v. Bd. of Curators of the Univ. of Mo., 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) (per curiam). Rather, the lesson of Pickering and the Court’s academic-freedom decisions is that the state may do so only when its interest in restricting a professor’s in-class speech outweighs his interest in speaking. Remember, too, that the university’s position on titles and pronouns goes both ways. By defendants’ logic, a university could likewise prohibit professors from addressing university students by their preferred gender pronouns—no matter the professors’ own views. And it could even impose such a restriction while denying professors the ability to explain to students why they were doing so. But that’s simply not the case. Without sufficient justification, the state cannot wield its authority to categorically silence dissenting viewpoints.
Read more from Legal Insurrection here.
This is an important victory, even if small or incomplete.