A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that an Ohio professor can sue a university for violating his constitutional rights after he was disciplined for refusing to use the preferred pronouns of a transgender student.
Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio, filed a lawsuit in 2018 after the school formally disciplined him for refusing to follow a school policy requiring the use of a student’s pronouns that match their gender identity, according to the decision.
A district court previously dismissed Meriwether’s lawsuit for lack of standing. Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel from the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals revives the lawsuit and sends it back to a lower court where Meriwether can make his argument that his First Amendment rights of free speech and religion and his 14th Amendment right to due process were violated.
“Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom,” Judge Amul Thapar wrote in the court’s 32-page opinion. “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 wrote.
Thapar, an appointee of President Donald Trump, was joined in the opinion by Judge David McKeague and Judge Joan Larsen. McKeague was appointed by President George W. Bush and Larsen appointed by Trump.
Shawnee State University declined to comment on the court’s decision citing pending litigation. The small public university in Portsmouth, Ohio, serves more than 3,600 students.
Policy introduced in 2016
According to Meriwether’s account, the policy was introduced by the school administration in 2016. He immediately pushed back, claiming that this went against his beliefs as a Christian. While he went to the department chair regarding the issue, where she allegedly dismissed his complaints.
Meriwether did not have any students that the policy applied to until January 2018. But that semester, a student spoke to him after the first class and asked for their preferred pronouns to be used, according to the court’s ruling.
The professor told the student that he wasn’t sure he could comply due to his own beliefs, and the students allegedly got upset and filed a complaint against him, he said.
For the next several months, a series of compromises were discussed between the administration and Meriwether, but the student kept filing more complaints over the semester. The school then conducted a Title IX investigation against him, he said.
The Title IX office ultimately concluded that Meriwether’s treatment of the student created a “hostile environment,” and the dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences recommended putting a formal warning in his file.
If these behaviors were to continue, he could face further corrective actions, including suspension without pay or termination, according to his account. The faculty union intervened on Meriwether’s behalf but was unable to exempt him from the policy, and Meriwether filed his lawsuit in 2018.
Meriwether is still a professor at Shawnee State, the school confirmed. Meriwether outlined his views last year in a column for The Hill, a publication in Washington, DC, that covers politics.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian advocacy group representing Meriwether, applauded the court’s decision, saying it was pleased that the lawsuit can go forward.
“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 John Bursch, the group’s senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy, in a statement.
“We are very pleased that the 6th Circuit affirmed the constitutional right of public university professors to speak and lead discussions, even on hotly contested issues,” Bursch said. “The freedoms of speech and religion must be vigorously protected if universities are to remain places where ideas can be debated and learning can take place.”
The decision comes as a wave of anti-trans bills are being introduced and passed across the nation. Ohio has had a controversial history with transgender rights, including a bill preventing gender affirming care for transgender youth and a policy preventing people from correcting their birth certificate to their proper gender marker.
Currently, the Ohio Legislature is considering a bill that would prevent transgender youth from playing in sports teams that match their gender identity, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.