The liberty principle for this Freedom Friday comes from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” The freedom of speech has been under attack in the United States for some time. It started with the condemnation of “politically incorrect speech” and continued to the silencing of former President Donald Trump and his supporters. There are few victories for free speech, but one took place recently.
According to Sarah Parshall Perry at The Daily Signal, a professor of philosophy won his suit against Shawnee State University. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Court ruled that Professor Nicholas Meriwether could not be forced to say something that he did not believe. In his case, the university tried to force the professor to use the “preferred pronouns” used by a transgender student, and the court said no way. The court also ruled that the professor’s suit could go forward for the university’s violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The decision by the Sixth Court “is the first of its kind, and establishes a needed boundary against American culture’s new, brutish sexual orthodoxy. It said loud and clear that people in academia cannot be forced to say things that they do not believe.
Perry gave some background for the suit. In 2016, the leadership at Shawnee State University sent an email to its faculty members, which directed them to use the students’ preferred pronouns when referring to them. Meriwether, as a devout Christian, went immediately to his department chair, Jennifer Pauley, to voice his concerns about the policy. Pauley was dismissive of his concerns and then became hostile to him.
Knowing Meriwether had successfully taught courses on Christian thought for decades, Pauley claimed Christians are “primarily motivated out of fear” and “should be banned from teaching courses regarding that religion.” In her view, even the “presence of religion in higher education is counterproductive.”
Meriwether was told that even if a professor had moral or religious objections to the use of preferred pronouns, the policy would still apply.
In January 2018, Meriwether responded to a question from a male student in a political philosophy class by saying, “Yes, sir.” The student later approached the professor, “stated that he was transgender, and demanded that the professor refer to him as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. Meriwether politely refused to use the student-preferred pronouns and offered to use the student’s last name or any other name chosen by the student. The student filed a complaint against the professor, which started a formal investigation at the Title IX office of the university.
Meriwether again offered various compromises in an attempt to protect his rights of conscience while being respectful to the transgender student, but the university rejected any arrangement other than the use of preferred pronouns or the elimination of sex-based pronouns altogether (a virtual impossibility in a scholastic setting).
When Meriwether refused to conform, the university charged him formally with a violation of Title IX with the claim “he [had] effectively created a hostile environment” for the student. A written warning was put in Meriwether’s personnel file with the threat of “further corrective actions” if he did not conform to the groupthink of the university.
The note and the threat were enough to move Meriwether to legal action, and he sued the Ohio university “for violation of free speech and religious liberty under the First Amendment” as well as “violation of his due process and equal protection rights” under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Meriwether’s lawsuit was thrown out by U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott on February 12, 2020. In addition, the judge “held that a professor’s speech in the classroom is never protected by the First Amendment.” From there, Meriwether appealed to the Sixth Court in Meriwether v. Hartop et al. The judges recognize the attempt to stamp out debate and open dialogue by the university’s speech policy. Judge Amul Thapar wrote the opinion and was joined by Judge Joan Larsen and Senior Judge David McKeague. The opinion starts as follows:
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.
The judge continued by clarifying “that the Supreme Court has recognized that the government may not compel a speaker to affirm a belief with which the speaker disagrees.” In addition, … “courts have recognized that the free speech clause of the Constitution applies at public universities and that ‘professors do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the [university] gate.”
Perry summarized the decision to say that “professors at public universities retain First Amendment protections at least when engaged in core academic functions, such as teaching and scholarship.” Her reason is that classrooms at colleges and universities are different than other work settings because the students need to be able too freely exchange ideas.
On the topic of titles and pronouns, the judge wrote that Meriwether did not agree with or want to communicate the message of the student and the university: “People can have a gender identity inconsistent with their sex at birth.”
… Meriwether took a side in that debate. Through his continued refusal to address Doe as a woman, he advanced a viewpoint on gender identity …
Shawnee State allegedly flouted [a] core principle of the First Amendment. Taking the allegations as true, and against “leftist groupthink” in academia.
According to the judge, people can think what they want about their own gender, but they do not have the right to force other people to recognize their non-reality. The judge confirmed that there is a difference between truth and opinion. The professor stood for truth, while the student and university tried to force him to acknowledge an opinion as truth. In doing so, they infringed upon the professor’s freedom of speech.