PORTSMOUTH, Ohio — A university in Ohio has agreed to pay $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to a professor who was punished for declining to refer to a male student with feminine pronouns.
Shawnee State University officials agreed to the settlement in light of last year’s ruling from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the professor had a right to sue for infringement of his free speech and free exercise of religion rights under the First Amendment.
“Meriwether respectfully sought an accommodation that would both protect his religious beliefs and make Doe feel comfortable. In response, the university derided him and equated his good-faith convictions with racism. An inference of religious hostility is plausible in these circumstances,” wrote Judge Amul Thapar, nominated to the bench by then-President Donald Trump.
“The effect of this … is that Meriwether must adhere to the university’s orthodoxy (or face punishment). This is coercion, at the very least of the indirect sort. And we know the Free Exercise Clause protects against both direct and indirect coercion,” he said on behalf of the three-judge panel.
As previously reported, during his political philosophy class in 2018, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, a professor at Shawnee State University, responded to a male student’s question with a “yes, sir.” The student approached him afterward, advising that he identifies as female and would prefer to be referred to with feminine pronouns.
Meriwether told the student that he was not sure if he could comply with the request. The student consequently became angry and spouted a vulgarity in close proximity to Meriwether’s face. He allegedly threatened to have the professor fired if he did not refer to him as a woman.
Meriwether reported the incident to university officials, and was instructed by Roberta Milliken, the dean of the university’s college of arts and sciences, to refer to students by their last name only, eliminating any use of pronouns. Meriwether wasn’t sold on the idea, as he thought it felt more like something a football coach would do, as opposed to a philosophy professor.
However, he told Milliken that he would do so in regard to the particular student, while using pronouns for everyone else.
Days later, Milliken approached Meriwether to advise that the student was unhappy with only being called by his last name and had threatened to file a Title IX complaint. Milliken, who originally agreed with Meriwether’s arrangement, told Meriwether that he must refer to the student by his preferred pronoun or he would be in violation of the university’s non-discrimination policy.
Meriwether replied that he would be willing to refer to the student by his desired name, but would not use any titles in front of it, such as “mister” or “miss.” The student went on to complete the class and was given a high grade.
However, in the meantime, Milliken launched an investigation against Meriwether due to the receipt of another complaint from the student. Meriwether outlined in writing that he could not refer to a man as a woman “due to [his] conscience, ethical or religious convictions, or [his] views on free speech.”
He realized that he was faced with two choices: either stop using pronouns for all students and simply refer to them by their first name, or violate his religious beliefs by accommodating the student’s gender identity.
Milliken filed a formal charge against Meriwether, stating that he had created a “hostile environment” because of “the way he addressed” the student. A letter of warning was also placed in Meriwether’s file, and meetings with university leadership to explain his religious convictions were not fruitful.
The professor consequently filed suit, citing unlawful retaliation and viewpoint discrimination in violation of his constitutional rights.
In February 2020, a district judge nominated to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton dismissed Meriwether’s lawsuit, asserting that he had failed to provide sufficient proof that he was entitled to legal relief.
“His speech — the manner by which he addressed a transgender student — was not protected under the First Amendment,” wrote Judge Susan Dlott. “Further, he did not plead facts sufficient to state a claim for a violation of his right to free exercise of religion, for a departure from religious neutrality.”
However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal last year and remanded the case for further proceedings.
“If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity,” Thapar wrote in the ruling. “A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as ‘comrades.’ That cannot be.”
The two parties soon began to work on an agreement, which would give Meriwether the freedom to decide whether or not to use pronouns or titles when addressing students.
“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,” Travis Barham, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented the professor, remarked in a statement.
“Dr. Meriwether went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with dignity and respect, yet his university punished him because he wouldn’t endorse an ideology that he believes is false,” he said. “We’re pleased to see the university recognize that the First Amendment guarantees Dr. Meriwether — and every other American — the right to speak and act in a manner consistent with one’s faith and convictions.”
Because of the settlement, ADF has dropped its legal challenge against the university.