This time, personal liberty won.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Shawnee State professor Nicholas Meriwether, who had been reprimanded and disciplined because he “refused to refer to students by their ‘preferred pronouns. ‘” The small Ohio state school had issued a 2016 order that that any professor who “refused to use a pronoun that reflects a student’s self-asserted gender identity” would face discipline. When Meriwether asked if his own beliefs affected what he could call students, the official response was that he must call students what they demanded “regardless of” his own “convictions or views on the subject.” The student in question was male in appearance but identified as female. Meriwether maintained that his Christian faith forbade him from referring to a male in female terms; the student, according to Meriwether, threatened him if he refused to comply with the pronoun edict. The court over-ruled a lower federal district court and held that university officials had violated the professor’s First Amendment rights to free speech and to the free exercise of his religion, thus attempting to“wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.”
Normally, as in the Christian baker scenarios, I would take the position that, law aside—ethics, you know!—, this is an “asshole meets asshole” situation. How hard is it for either party to just yield a bit, respect the other’s sensitivities, extreme or not, and be accommodating? It is a Golden Rule opportunity. This time, however, it seems clear that the professor was willing to be reasonable, and the woke, non-binery, transitioning or whatever he or she was student was determined to go to extreme lengths to bend the professor to “her” will.
Meriwether, who had taught philosophy, religion, ethics, and the “History of Christian Thought” at Shawnee State for 25 years, had agreed to call the demanding student only by name rather than pronouns, but that wasn’t enough. The student insisted on female pronouns, so the university told Meriwether he would have to use them when referring to that student. It also refused to allow Meriwether to place a disclaimer in his syllabus which stated that he would only refer to students by their preferred pronouns “under compulsion” along with a disclaimer “setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity.”
Ignoring the student’s complaint, Prof. Meriwether continued calling the student by name. So the student complained again; following an investigation, the school concluded that Meriwether “created a hostile environment” and had violated “nondiscrimination policies” involving “gender identity.” Fearing that he would be fired, the besieged professor initiated the lawsuit.
The Sixth Circuit, after explaining why the professor’s choice of pronouns was protected speech, noted,
One final point worth considering: If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. 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. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe” such orthodoxy….
Remember, too, that the university’s position on titles and pronouns goes both ways. By defendants’ logic, a university could likewise prohibit professors from addressing university students by their preferred gender pronouns—no matter the professors’ own views. And it could even impose such a restriction while denying professors the ability to explain to students why they were doing so….
[T]itles 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….
Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. 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.
Good. Of course, universities are no longer “beacons of intellectual diversity,” they are the opposite: agents of ideological indoctrination. A single opinion by an appeals court won’t alter that frightening condition, but Meriwether deserves society’s thanks for not caving to the kind of pressures that would have generated obsequious apologies and compliance from most of his peers.