Shawnee State, a small public university in Ohio, just settled a lawsuit with professor Nicholas Meriwether, acknowledging that the school cannot force professors to speak contrary to their religious beliefs. This is a huge win for free speech on every American college campus.
Meriwether has been a philosophy professor at Shawnee State since 1996. He has taught countless students, designed a bachelor’s degree program, and served in the faculty senate. He has a distinguished teaching record and, up until the incident related to the lawsuit, had a spotless disciplinary record.
Many students appreciate how Meriwether challenged them in the classroom by requiring them to grapple with ideas that were different than their own. As one student wrote to the professor, “You and I saw eye-to-eye on very little and that made [your] arguments all the more valuable to me. If you had only made a half-hearted attempt at a counterpoint or (far worse) neglected to even mention an opposing position in order to spare my feelings, you would have been fundamentally undermining my education.”
Meriwether is a devout Christian who tries to live out his faith daily. He believes, “God created human beings as either male or female, that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.” He also believes that he cannot “affirm as true ideas and concepts that are not true.”
Until 2016, adhering to his faith at work had not been a problem. At the start of that school year, however, Shawnee State told the faculty that they must refer to students by their “preferred” pronouns. The university rejected any religious objection. Indeed, when Meriwether approached his department chairwoman to discuss his religious concerns, she stated that Christians are “primarily motivated out of fear” and should be “banned from teaching courses regarding that religion.” In the view of the department chairwoman, even the “presence of religion in higher education is counterproductive.”
In January 2018, Meriwether responded to a student’s question by saying, “Yes, sir.” At the end of class, the student identified as transgender and demanded to be referred to as a woman, along with “feminine titles and pronouns.” When Meriwether did not immediately agree, the student cursed at him and told him he would be fired. Meriwether later offered a compromise: He would refer to the student by either his first or last name, but he would not say something that he believed to be untrue and violated his convictions as a Christian.In a huge win for free speech, the university agreed it cannot force Meriwether to refer to students using pronouns and titles that are different than the students’ biological sex.
This wasn’t enough for Shawnee State. University officials formally charged Meriwether, claiming he “created a hostile environment” and discriminated against the student. The university ultimately placed a written warning in Meriwether’s personnel file and threatened “further corrective actions” if he did not refer to students using their preferred pronouns.
At that point, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on Meriwether’s behalf, claiming Shawnee State had violated his First Amendment rights. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the lawsuit should go forward. As the court explained, American universities have traditionally “been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom.” They have been places where “controversial ideas are discussed and debated.” Yet, Shawnee State had punished a professor for his speech on an issue of public concern. Under the university’s theory, Judge Amul Thapar cautioned, public universities would “wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.” A university could compel a Christian to denounce his faith, a Republican to profess support for a Democratic platform, or an atheist to profess faith in God. Such a result would be blatantly unconstitutional. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson explained in 1943, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox.”
Last week, Shawnee State settled the case. In a huge win for free speech, the university agreed it cannot force Meriwether to refer to students using pronouns and titles that are different than the students’ biological sex. The university also agreed to remove the disciplinary action from his file and to pay him $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
“Dr. Meriwether rightly defended his freedom to speak and stay silent, and not conform to the university’s demand for uniformity of thought,” said Tyson Langhofer, ADF senior counsel. “We commend the university for ultimately agreeing to do the right thing, in keeping with its reason for existence as a marketplace of ideas.”
In the wake of Shawnee State’s acknowledgment that it may not force professors to speak contrary to their conscience, the fundamental First Amendment precept that no official may prescribe orthodoxy remains alive on that campus, at least for now.
Editor’s note: Erin Hawley works for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Nicholas Meriwether.