Reining in university thought police
Free Speech | Court sides with Ohio professor who declined to use student’s preferred pronouns
by Steve West
Posted 3/30/21, 02:17 pm
A federal appeals court waded into the debate over gender pronouns on Friday, upholding a Christian professor’s right to not address students in class by pronouns not consistent with their sex.
A unanimous panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Shawnee State University violated both free speech and free exercise of religion rights of tenured philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether. The school disciplined him in 2016 for declining to address a male student with feminine titles and pronouns. Circuit judges sent the case back to the district court—which ruled against Meriwether in September 2019—for further consideration of the professor’s claims.
Meriwether believes sex is fixed in each person at the point of conception and cannot be changed. He asked if he could refer to the student by last name only or use the preferred pronoun while putting a disclaimer about his beliefs in the course syllabus. Neither option was good enough for university officials.
Circuit judges highlighted the complaint’s allegation that department head Jennifer Pauley told Meriwether that Christians are “primarily motivated out of fear” and should be “banned from teaching courses regarding that religion.” It also alleged Provost Jeffrey Bauer “openly laughed” when a union representative tried to explain the teachings of Meriwether’s church and why the professor felt he was being compelled to affirm a position at odds with his faith.
“[P]ublic universities do not have a license to act as classroom thought police,” wrote Judge Amul Thapar, President Donald Trump’s first circuit court appointee and first South Asian judge in American history. “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.’”
Alliance Defending Freedom’s John Bursch, who represented Meriwether, said the decision will support university educators’ academic freedom in their research, writing, and other matters.
It may also signal courts are willing to protect faculty who face attacks from students, often with the support of university administers and fanned by social media-fueled outrage. Last year University of California, Los Angeles professor Gordon Klein was suspended temporarily after a student claimed he would not accommodate a request to reschedule a test due to trauma caused by the death of George Floyd. Indiana University professor Eric Rasmusen faced condemnation (though he kept his job) over social media posts on homosexuality, women in academia, affirmative action, and race. And last week, University of Rhode Island administrators sought to distance the school from gender studies professor Donna Hughes over an essay she wrote on the “trans-sex fantasy.”
Hughes is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance, formed earlier this month by faculty from across the ideological spectrum to promote academic freedom. The organization’s website says its mission is to defend faculty members’ freedom of thought and expression in their work. The fledgling group has not weighed in on the Meriwether case, but on March 22 it sided with San Diego law professor Tom Smith, who is facing allegations of harassment after publishing a blog post critical of the Chinese government’s handling of COVID-19.
“If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity,” Thapar wrote. “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.”
Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.