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March 31, 2021

A Small Win in the Pronoun War

A Christian prof pursues a lawsuit against a university that dismissed him for refusing to use preferred pronouns.

A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled last Friday in favor of former Shawnee State University professor Nicholas Meriwether, overturning a lower court’s decision that had dismissed the professor’s lawsuit against the university for violating his First Amendment rights. Meriwether contends that SSU violated his rights by dismissing him after he refused on religious grounds to address a gender-dysphoric student by his preferred feminine pronouns.

Back in 2018, a male student in Meriwether’s philosophy class approached the professor requesting that he be referred to by feminine pronouns due to his gender “identity.” When Meriwether refused, on the grounds that doing so would compromise his deeply held Christian beliefs, the student became irate and vulgar, promised to get the professor fired and took the matter to the dean, claiming a Title IX violation.

Initially, the school accepted a compromise from Meriwether wherein he would only use the student’s last name without any gendered titles, such as “Mr.” or “Miss.” However, administrators soon changed their minds after the student objected and threatened to hire a lawyer. Meriwether was subsequently fired for refusal “to recognize” a student’s gender identity and for “disparate treatment” that created “a hostile environment.”

In issuing his decision, Judge Amul Thapar, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote, “[Meriwether’s] sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes are false.” Even in a private university, he added, “the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors.”

Thapar further observed, “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.”

While this is indeed a win for Prof. Meriwether, it is far from decisive, as it simply allows him to proceed with his wrongful dismissal lawsuit against SSU. He has no guarantee of succeeding. Regarding the larger culture war issue — free speech versus compelled speech — this decision is certainly welcome, though it still isn’t anywhere near as decisive as what’s needed. However, it does push back against the assertion often advanced by the Left: that constitutional protections like the First Amendment can only be applied when directly involving government authority. Free speech is a cultural value, not just a right for Congress to protect.

It will be telling to see if Meriwether’s lawsuit is successful now that he’s won the right to continue pursuing it.

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