Ohio Professor Wins Major Free Speech Decision on Compelled Use of Pronouns in Classrooms

My column yesterday discussed the increasing trend to treat the failure to use a person’s preferred pronouns (called “misgendering”) a type of hate speech or discriminatory conduct. A new case highlights the free speech problems associated with the trend. In Meriwether v. Hartop, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit handed down a major ruling in favor of Shawnee State University Professor Nicholas Meriwether, who was disciplined for refusing to use a student’s designated pronoun choices.

At the beginning of the school year, Shawnee State emailed all faculty members to order them to refer to students by their “preferred pronoun[s].” Meriwether teaches religion and philosophy and refers to all his students using “sir,” “ma’am,” “mister” or “miss.”  When Meriwether asked university officials for more details, the school confirmed that professors would be disciplined if they “refused to use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity” and the school would not recognize any ideological or religious exception.

The policy was stated as mandatory “regardless of the professor’s convictions or views on the subject.” He was further informed that such punishment would be meted out under the school’s anti-discrimination rules “because of . . . gender identity.”

The issue came to a head with an encounter described by the Court:

“In that first class, one of the students Meriwether called on was Doe. According to Meriwether, “no one . . . would have assumed that [Doe] was female” based on Doe’s outward appearances. Id. at 1474. Thus, Meriwether responded to a question from Doe by saying, “Yes, sir.” Id. This was Meriwether’s first time meeting Doe, and the university had not provided Meriwether with any information about Doe’s sex or gender identity. After class, Doe approached Meriwether and “demanded” that Meriwether “refer to [Doe] as a woman” and use “feminine titles and pronouns.” Id. at1475. This was the first time that Meriwether learned that Doe identified as a woman. So Meriwether paused before responding because his sincerely held religious beliefs prevented him from communicating messages about gender identity that he believes are false. He explained that he wasn’t sure if he could comply with Doe’s demands. Doe became hostile—circling around Meriwether at first, and then approaching him in a threatening manner: ‘I guess this means I can call you a cu–.’ Id. Doe promised that Meriwether would be fired if he did not give in to Doe’s demands.”

What is interesting is that after Doe complained, the Dean of Students and his department chair, Jennifer Pauley, came to Meriwether’s office and said that he had to use the chosen pronoun for the student. Meriwether explained that he had a religious objection but suggested a common resolution that he would use the last name of this particular student rather than use a pronoun. However, he would continue to use pronouns for other students. As I discussed in the column, many faculty members are now abandoning the use of pronouns to avoid such complaints.

Pauley reportedly agreed to the compromise but the student later said that it was unacceptable and Pauley returned to tell Meriwether that he was in violation of the school anti-discrimination rules.

“Trying to find common ground, Meriwether asked whether the university’s policy would allow him to use students’ preferred pronouns but place a disclaimer in his syllabus “noting that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity.” R. 34, Pg. ID 1478. Dean Milliken rejected this option out of hand. She insisted that putting a disclaimer in the syllabus would itself violate the university’s gender identity policy.”

Meriwether was then investigated and found guilty of discrimination based on gender identity, defined as a “person’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither.”  A warning letter was placed in his file and he sued out of fear that he would be fired given his continued objections to the policy.

He lost before the lower court. District Court Judge Susan Dlott issued a chilling decision that entirely dismissed free speech rights for faculty members in such classroom exchanges. She wrote in her opinion:

“The speech here occurred in the context of plaintiff’s employment; it was limited to titles and pronouns used to address one student in plaintiff’s class: the speech was directed to plaintiff and heard only by her and her fellow students; and absent any further explanation or elaboration, the speech cannot reasonably be construed as having conveyed any beliefs or stated any facts about gender identity.”

Many disagree that this is protected speech, but I cannot understand how Judge Dlott could say that such compelled use of pronouns “cannot reasonably be construed as having conveyed any beliefs or stated any facts about gender identity.”

The Sixth Circuit noted that, as stated in Speech First, Inc. v. Schlissel, 939 F.3d 756, 761 (6th Cir. 2019), “Universities have historically been fierce guardians of intellectual debate and free speech.”  It reversed a district court’s ruling by Judge Dlott that a professor’s speech in the classroom is not protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, it held that “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.”

Adopting a position similar to the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits, the appellate panel ruled:

“[O]ur court has rejected as “totally unpersuasive” “the argument that teachers have no First Amendment rights when teaching, or that the government can censor teacher speech without restriction.” Hardy v. Jefferson Cmty. Coll., 260 F.3d 671, 680 (6th Cir. 2001). And we have recognized that “a professor’s rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are paramount in the academic setting.” Bonnell v. Lorenzo, 241 F.3d 800, 823 (6th Cir. 2001); see Dambrot v. Cent. Mich. Univ., 55 F.3d 1177, 1188–89 (6th Cir. 1995).1 Simply put, professors at public universities retain First Amendment protections at least when engaged in core academic functions, such as teaching and scholarship. See Hardy, 260 F.3d at 680.”

The ruling is a major recognition and defense of free speech rights for faculty in classrooms. It is not clear if the school will now appeal but I expect that there are at least four justices who would be particularly interested in granting certiorari to amplify rather than reverse the reasoning of the Sixth Circuit.

Here is the decision: Shawnee State Gender Pronoun Lawsuit

 

142 thoughts on “Ohio Professor Wins Major Free Speech Decision on Compelled Use of Pronouns in Classrooms”

  1. It is clear the “student” has a chip and an agenda on their shoulder. The mean spirited militancy is pervasive in that students attitude. The whole threaten to get you fired should have been a no brainer to tell the student to GTFO and go home , find another school for your predilection.

  2. Foe a deer….a female deer.
    Ray a queer from the scum
    Tree…the name I call myself ..
    FA a long long way to run!
    Pee a thing to do each day
    Poop a thing to spread and flay!
    So I pull my kids from college ..
    And have them work at Jumping Jays!

  3. I do not see how the student’s gender has relevance to academic studies in general. Sir or ma’am is perfectly acceptable. In cases where there is an uncertainty, the uncertainty need not be explored, and the use of a last name is perfectly fine.

    When teaching 2+2= 4, I don’t think the answer changes based on the gender of the student.

    The left is trying to create trouble because the left likes cultural dissonance. That produces an environment open to being raped.

  4. The the thing that baffles me about this whole ridiculous issue is the question of why no person with a psychology background does not point out the fallacy of claiming that external validation of internal feelings is anything other than a nonsensical false reality. If you think you are the Queen of England, my addressing you as “your majesty” does not cause you to BECOME the Queen of England in reality. Likewise if I meet the actual queen and call her “hey you,” she is not immediately dethroned because I did so.

    If you think you are male, my calling you “sir” is not actually going to cause you to grow a penis that you don’t have. Nor is my calling you “ma’am” going to cause your penis to fall off if you don’t have one for that to happen to.

  5. What jumped out at me was the student getting in the professor’s face and basically threatening him. How can this type of action be condoned by a university? The student actually used vulgarity while yelling at the professor and should have been expelled immediately.

    As for this student, what ever happened to discussion, debate and mediation? This student seems to have only wanted confrontation because this is what the young leftists in this country do these days. See ANTIFA and BLM and how they attack white people sitting in restaurants. The professor should have banned her/him from his class.

  6. Calling people by pronouns that refer to the wrong gender or made up genders, only enables mentally ill people. Most mentally ill people refuse to admit they are mentally ill. That’s why so many people who are clinically depressed, suicidal, etc., refuse to seeks help, and thus, hard themselves.

  7. The aggressive behavior of Doe makes it clear that this gender thing is about power, not identity. These confused students can exert a bit of power over a professor by jumping on this anti-scientific, neurotic bandwagon. Pity the poor professor who has 100 students and must remember their idiosyncratic gender preferences…which more than likely will change from year-to-year, since all they’re based on is “feelings.”

    1. Professors and students……how about an Army Sergeant or Officer and the Troops in today’s “Woke” Army!

      Think of the mess PC and its cousin Wokism has created in the US Military.

      War…and preparing for War is not a Maypole Dance for Garden Fairies….it is a tough unforgiving business that requires direct sharp engagement by all concerned.

      The Left is destroying the fabric of this Nation….and it shall not end well for anyone of us.

      1. I live and work in an Army town. 90% of real soldiers are hating this wokeness and are contemplating leaving the service. Do we really want men in skirts left to defend us?

        1. Thank you, Alma. I agree, though I suspect Beijing might not. I also hope our patriots don’t quit. Ride it out!

          Democrats Podesta, Milley, and Gilday believe that cultural Marxism and history are on their side, but they want to control the military so they can win any constitutional showdown with the GOP and red states. Without military support, civil conflict would likely be a disaster for the Democrats.

          If the military goes woke, a well-planned constitutional crisis won’t be far behind. The Democrats never let a crisis go to waste.

          1. “Peacefully” Attack, Attack, Attack the Globalist billionaire Lunatics, every day, every day, every day!

            Just tell them: No Consent, No Consent, No Consent with their Government Vaz Mandates/Mask/Vaz Passports.

            Just wait til the mass of citizens realize those ahole are RedRumming their Family/Friends/ & Them!

            The current Death Jab Body count has been Vertical now for 8 months!

            https://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2021/09/scottish-commentator-neil-oliver-sees-world-leaders-frightened-people/

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  8. Misgendering someone is offensive and insulting to them, and Universities are allowed to put in place polices that prohibit their employees from offending and insulting students. A professor does not get to decided that they have a religious right to offend someone. This court decision is wrong.

    1. Calling people by pronouns that refer to the wrong gender or made up genders, only enables mentally ill people. Most mentally ill people refuse to admit they are mentally ill. That’s why so many people who are clinically depressed, suicidal, etc., refuse to seeks help, and thus, hard themselves.

    2. “Misgendering someone is offensive and insulting to them . . .”

      Welcome to an emotionalist culture. A student’s feelings are king — and you will bow to them.

    3. It’s a university not a mental health institution. No one has the right to force anyone to play along with their fantasies.

    4. People often mix up genders on the phone or the Internet. So what? The student has a first name and the last name, so using one of those names should be more than sufficient. Misgendering someone is not offensive or insulting. It is an error quickly corrected by using the correct biological gender or calling the person by his name.

      I don’t want to insult you, so please provide your biological gender and the gender you wish to be referred to. Can you also let us know what others call you so we have those terms available as well? We wouldn’t want to offend those others by using a name different than the one they already use.

  9. Simple solution: if there’s an issue each student should drop their pants or raise their their skirt to prove the gender they wish to be addressed by. Proof is in the kielbasa or roast beef.

    1. You are suggesting sexual abuse as a “solution.” That you wish to abuse people you disagree with is pretty sad.

        1. Having someone “drop their pants or raise their their skirt to prove the gender” without consent is sexual abuse.

          1. No its not. The person is just expressing themself. There is nothing threatening about the human form. Abuse? No such thing.

                1. Margot wasn’t advocating consent.

                  As for the question you keep asking, you should ask the people who wrote indecency laws, not me.

                    1. “Some people “kid” about sexual abuse.” while others use sexual abuse to promote their heinous actions and desires. You really should stop with your nasty attitude.

                  1. you should ask the people who wrote indecency laws, not me

                    Like sodomy laws?
                    Misegregation laws?
                    Marriage laws?

                    So you agree there is no such thing as decency. All litigated out of existence by unelected judges.

    1. Roe regretted her Choice and exploitation to normalize reproductive rites. Also, fish eggs. Doe is a deer, a [femine] female deer.

  10. Are there any negative consequences for the school losing this decision similar to what the professor would have had if he was forced to resign? If not, then what incentive exists that would prevent this from happening again?

    1. it is a Section 1983 violation so the school has to pay the attorney fees and costs of the professor. And it is emabarrassing for the school to be on the receiving end of this rebuke. This decision has precedential value and will be enforced.

      1. Thanks. So yes, something, but nothing close to what the professor stood to lose. No doubt the school has insurance for lawsuits.

        This is not equal justice, this is social justice. It’s like Vegas, where individuals appear to win, but overall the house wins.

  11. I don’t know if those people got the memo, but gender is a binary concept: A person is either male or female. “Other” is an impersonal concept, and so are these other so-called gender descriptions that have been created by those who have the inability to express concepts using words. Or maybe they are too creative in their use of words.

    Words have meanings, and those meanings are specific. There is no reason to change the language by force, like this university is attempting. Words exist to present concepts, and should not be undermined.

    I don’t have much sympathy for a person who can’t understand the concepts of male and female, especially when that person if of age to attend a university. And I have less sympathy or respect for the people who are the supposed leaders of this institution, who can’t recognize the same concepts of life. Their enabling of permissive mistaken gender definitions by their students is creating a disaster for us all.

    1. Twilight Zone is fiction. Twilight Fringe (e.g. penumbras and emanations, conflation of logical domains) is a clear and progressive condition.

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