Philosophy Prof’s Lawsuit Against University On Addressing Trans Students Reinstated


The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has reversed an earlier dismissal of a philosophy professor’s lawsuit against his employer, Shawnee State University, for violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Nicholas Meriwether

The philosophy professor, Nicholas Meriwether, had sued the school, claiming that it had violated his freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and rights to due process when it disciplined him for alleged mistreatment of a transgender student in one of his courses. The student, a trans woman, had asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her using feminine pronouns and titles. Dr. Meriwether, an Evangelical Christian, refused, claiming that doing so was forbidden by his religion. Dr. Meriwether also refused the compromise suggestion made to him by his dean that he stop using titles and pronouns to address his students.

The lower court dismissed the case. Now, the Federal Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal, allowing the case to proceed.

The lower court had said 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.” In contrast, the Federal Court rejected the idea that speech involved in addressing students by gender was merely a formal administrative matter, claiming instead that such speech—and its regulation by the university—advances substantive viewpoints on a topic of public concern. The court writes:

The need for the free exchange of ideas in the college classroom is unlike that in other public workplace settings. And a professor’s in-class speech to his students is anything but speech by an ordinary government employee. Indeed, in the college classroom there are three critical interests at stake (all supporting robust speech protection): (1) the students’ interest in receiving informed opinion, (2) the professor’s right to disseminate his own opinion, and (3) the public’s interest in exposing our future leaders to different viewpoints. See Lane v. Franks, 573 U.S. 228, 236 (2014); Sweezy, 354 U.S. at 250 (plurality opinion). Because the First Amendment “must always be applied ‘in light of the special characteristics of the . . . environment’ in the particular case,” Healy, 408 U.S. at 180 (alteration in original) (quoting Tinker, 393 U.S. at 506), public universities do not have a license to act as classroom thought police. They cannot force professors to avoid controversial viewpoints altogether in deference to a state-mandated orthodoxy. Otherwise, our public universities could transform the next generation of leaders into “closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.” Tinker, 393 U.S. at 511. Thus, “what constitutes a matter of public concern and what raises academic freedom concerns is of essentially the same character.” Dambrot, 55 F.3d at 1188. 

Of course, some classroom speech falls outside the exception: A university might, for example, require teachers to call roll at the start of class, and that type of non-ideological ministerial task would not be protected by the First Amendment. Shawnee State says that the rule at issue is similarly ministerial. But as we discuss below, titles and pronouns carry a message. The university recognizes that and wants its professors to use pronouns to communicate a message: People can have a gender identity inconsistent with their sex at birth. But Meriwether does not agree with that message, and he does not want to communicate it to his students. That’s not a matter of classroom management; that’s a matter of academic speech.

In an article about the case at The Washington Post, Andrew Koppelman, a professor of law (with appointments in political science and philosophy) at Northwestern University, is quoted as saying about the court’s reasoning:

As a hypothetical, let’s suppose that a professor thinks that the honorific ‘Mr.’ is okay, but not for African Americans because it gives African Americans a respect he doesn’t believe they deserve. I think a court would say that that alone would create a hostile environment. I don’t understand why applying the wrong honorific only to transgender students doesn’t create a hostile environment also.

You can read the entire text of the court’s decision here.

[UPDATE: A small correction has been made to this post in light of the helpful comment, below, from Louis F. Cooper.]

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Michele Loi
Michele Loi
7 months ago

Dear Prof. Weinberg

I have noticed your last post on this case ended with the following 2 comments (copy pasted from that thread – both appearing under pseudonymous designations):

1) “As with so many threads on Daily Nous, the commentators on this one seem to run very cis and male — I’m making an inference from the contents of some of these comments. Justin, what can we do to make this platform a safe and inclusive place for all voices? My strong impression is that women, PoC, trans people, etc. avoid this site and for good reason — it’s the predictable gaslighting, concern trolling, etc. that dominates the threads here. The result is a highly skewed commentary, one that does not reflect the diversity of our profession.
One thought would be a more crowd-sourced platform, with more articles authored by women, trans, PoC, etc. Another thought would be that more threads on controversial topics should be “no comments.” I would certainly count this topic as controversial and, for some people. More needs to be done to protect and center trans philosophers, who are somehow often left outside of these conversations but who are also the ones who have to contend with the fall-out from these sorts of comments. These aren’t abstract theoretical issues. Actual trans philosophers are harmed by the reminder that, for instance, some people *in their profession* think it’s totally ok for a trans student to be deliberately treated in a discriminatory manner. And some of these people even go out of their way to say this on a public platform.
How can Daily Nous be part of a solution or at least, a centering of marginalized people? I think it can be.”

2) “Thanks flor this. The thread is collectively obnoxious even if the individual contributions are innocuous enough. Transphobia is alive and well in philosophy.”

I’m not entirely sure (as I do not read all posts appearing here) but I do not think you have ever addressed these two comments, to let us know what you think. I also notice that the philosophical discussion stopped after that – I’m not sure but I suspect a causal link. Perhaps knowing if you believe that (1) “the predictable gaslighting, concern trolling, etc. that dominates the threads here” and (2) are adequate descriptions of the comment section in the previous thread may influence people’s willingness to comment on this one.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
7 months ago

Although as it happens, the vast majority of comments on that particular discussion (which I thought was quite a useful discussion for a while, though it reached diminishing returns) were not pseudonymous.Report

paulmankin
Reply to  Michele Loi
4 days ago

Hey! Thanks for the article. The legal framework shields transgender people until they become personal. The professor appealed with false facts if his lawsuit was canceled. Personally, I assume that he simply did not have the knowledge of an experienced lawyer to win.Report

Matthew Howery
Matthew Howery
7 months ago

I swear to god, white cis-gendered folks will take any and every opportunity to cosplay oppression instead of making even the most minimal accommodation for other oppressed persons.

Freedom of religion? Only if a tenet of the religion is, “In every case, we are always the greatest victims.”

I’m sure I’m not the only person sick of this so I thought I’d post just so other trans, non-binary, and BIPOC folks know that they are not alone. I know these comments sections can be extremely painful and isolating to read. Most often, the rest of us just shake our heads and move on, which is why these comments sections are often a collection of vile, transphobic garbage.Report

Matthew Howery
Matthew Howery
Reply to  Matthew Howery
7 months ago

I should have written the first line as (new text italicized), “I swear to god, it feels like some white cis-gendered folks will take any and every opportunity to cosplay oppression instead of making even the most minimal accommodation for other oppressed persons.”

I would not want my meaning misinterpreted by even the most literal of interlocutors.Report

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
7 months ago

First, the case had been dismissed, which it shouldn’t have been. However this comes out on the merits, it’s at least plausible that he could have won at trial, so the dismissal was overturned. Note that doesn’t say anything about whether he’s going to win at trial.

Second, the Sixth Circuit is pretty conservative. Judges Thapar and McKeague were appointed by President Bush (43), and Larsen by President Trump. So that makes it even less surprising that this one was bounced back.

Third, the Koppelman quote would go to merits, not dismissal–it doesn’t really have anything to do with where we’re at now, legally (yet).

Fourth, this really isn’t about cisgendered male entitlement. It’s just about whether this guy should have a chance to argue his case. Not even win it, just argue it. There’s enough open questions here (e.g., free speech, free religion), that actually made this a pretty low bar.

I was very surprised by the original dismissal and thought this is what’d happen–the only difference being that the Sixth Circuit panel was even more conservative than it could have been.Report

Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins
7 months ago

Is this a case of a state employee trying to impose his religious views on others? It is disheartening to see a philosophy professor holding so dogmatically to the claim that he has “the truth.”Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Thomas Riggins
7 months ago

Such an imposition is entailed by the professor’s refusal to acknowledge that the student saw the use of an unwanted address as an offensive epithet (which is in turn implied by the student’s protest). This scenario involves constitutional elements of determining what is harmful speech as gauged by any individual against religious freedom’s foundation to oppose that determination of imposing the acceptance of such speech–pitting free speech limitations directly against freedom of religion against such imposed limitations. Given the present constitution (sic) of SCOTUS, I would not be sanguine that the student would prevail. But I have to say: what harm would the professor unduly suffered from being just understanding and merciful and using the student’s preferred word, especially given the power differential between professor and student? That would have been more Christ-like in the way that the NT depicts him in the face of what he saw were sinners, and would have avoided all this legal misery.Report

Nathan Oaklander
Nathan Oaklander
Reply to  Alan White
7 months ago

Well said, sir.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Nathan Oaklander
7 months ago

Thanks Nathan my friend.Report

Lillian Burke
Lillian Burke
7 months ago

Im offended by the professor because she is using her position of power in a way that is likely to intimidate many students. The student certainly could call her “Mrs.” In my religion we don’t believe in titles so she can join my religion. Unfortunately, if the student did this, the professor could use her power (consciously or unconsciously) to affect the student’s grade. That said, there is something to the freedom of speech argument. Also, as a physician i am personally familiar with the fact that a small but significant number of people pass for the other sex. The professor is very ignorant but that is not illegal.Report

Dick Richards
Dick Richards
7 months ago

It is unfortunate this had to go to court. The professor should have just used the preferred pronoun. I mean, when a student informs me that they will need an accommodation, it does not benefit either of us for me to deny their need. It would have been more prudent to accommodate the student’s request, so that the student could complete their coursework. Maybe if the professor felt the need to, he could have recommended the student see a specialist to help them deal with their gender dysphoria. Being an instructor and not the student’s parent, I would not personally take that route. Though I think it would have likely resulted in creating less unnecessary drama.Report

John Bogart
John Bogart
Reply to  Dick Richards
7 months ago

The allegations of the complaint say there were several attempts at accommodation of the student’s and the professor’s views. The allegations appear more focused on administrative failures, bullying, and anti-Christian bias. Of course there is a great distance between complaint and evidence.Report

emily vicendese
emily vicendese
7 months ago

“As a hypothetical, let’s suppose that a professor thinks that the honorific ‘Mr.’ is okay, but not for African Americans because it gives African Americans a respect he doesn’t believe they deserve. I think a court would say that that alone would create a hostile environment. I don’t understand why applying the wrong honorific only to transgender students doesn’t create a hostile environment also.”

It’s interesting the way racial analogues are deployed in this debate. Justin Weinberg made one on a recent post about trans politics too, arguing (as far as I can remember) that female people who want some female-only spaces are like white women who want some white women-only spaces. The idea seems to be that “trans” and “black” are sufficiently equivalent, politically speaking. But why, then, is it frowned upon to ask hypothetical questions where one treats “male” and “white” or “black” and “female” as sufficiently politically equivalent? What is it about being trans that makes it politically analogous to being black, and what is it about being female that is not politically analogous to being black?Report

Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
7 months ago

The easy question is whether Dr. Meriwether should use the pronouns his students prefer. Yes, he should

A harder question is what it is appropriate to forbid or require someone to say in the classroom. I struggle with this. I’ve tried to come up with general principles, but have failed to come up with anything I’m happy with.

I think it’s absolutely on-topic to ask what we would tolerate from a professor who wanted to use different terms of address for white and black students.Report