The First Amendment, a Philosophy Professor, and Pronouns

No, professors, the First Amendment does not protect you from receiving a warning from your university about violating its nondiscrimination policies when you talk to or about your transgender students in discriminatory ways in class.

Nicholas Meriwether, professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University in Ohio, had used “sir” while responding in his Fall 2018 political philosophy class to a transgender woman student. After class that day, the student asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her as a woman and use feminine pronouns (“she”, “her”) or titles (“Miss,” “Ms.”) when addressing or talking about her. He refused. Instead, he resorted to referring to the student by her last name only, while continuing to address other students in class as “Mr.” and “Ms.” followed by their last name.

Nicholas Meriwether

The student filed a complaint with the university, which investigated and presented Dr. Meriwether with a written warning to not violate the school’s nondiscrimination policies. (See previous post on this here.)

Dr. Meriwether then sued Shawnee State University, arguing that the warning had violated his Constitutional rights. From the initial decision:

He is a “professing evangelical Christian” and member of the Presbyterian Church of America with sincerely-held religious beliefs about gender, and he does not believe that an individual’s gender can be changed after the moment of conception… He objects to communicating what he believes to be “a University mandated ideological message regarding gender identity that he does not believe” and which he believes “contradicts (and would force him to violate) his sincerely held religious beliefs.”…

Meriwether sought a judgment that the school’s nondiscrimination policies and practices violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Shawnee State University officials named in the lawsuit asked the court to dismiss it.

This past September the court did dismiss the case, making use of various precedents, including the judgments that “Universities may sanction professors ‘whose pedagogical attitudes and teaching methods do not conform to institutional standards” and that “although public universities may not force professors to endorse or eschew specific viewpoints, the First Amendment does not bar a public university from requiring that its faculty treat each other and their students with civility.”

Meriwether appealed to the district court, which rejected his appeal last month. Meriwether has now filed a further appeal.


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