Professor Wins Settlement After Refusing to Use Student’s Preferred Pronoun
Can a school require its professors to use students’ preferred gender pronouns? Even if those pronouns don’t match a student’s biological sex? That was the policy of Shawnee State University in Ohio. And it’s a policy that got philosophy professor Nick Meriwether into a heap of trouble.
It started in January 2018 when Professor Meriwether responded to a student’s question during a political philosophy class by saying, “Yes, sir.” It’s common for professors to address students with gender-specific language of this sort. Sir, Ma’am, Miss. These are titles of respect and courtesy. They’re especially popular in some parts of the country. Referring to students with proper titles can elevate classroom dialog.
The student approached Mr. Meriwether after class. The student identified to Meriwether as transgender. The student demanded to be referred to as a woman in the future. And to be addressed with feminine titles and pronouns.
What to do? Meriwether didn’t agree to the student’s request. He cited his devout Christian convictions. At which point, court documents say, the student became belligerent and told the professor that he would be fired.
The student filed a complaint with the university. Shawnee State launched an investigation. The university decided that Meriwether created a hostile environment for this student by not using the student’s preferred pronouns. They placed a written warning in Meriwether’s personnel file. The warning said “further corrective actions” would be taken if something similar were to occur in the future.
Meriwether Strikes Back
Meriwether went to his faculty union. He asked them to file a grievance. They did. In response, university officials agreed that Meriwether’s conduct did not create a hostile environment. Big win? Not so fast. Instead, the university shifted their claim. They said that this student had received “differential treatment.” So they denied the union’s grievance.
Meriwether’s next move was a lawsuit. The brief claimed that the university’s pronoun policy did not reflect “biological reality” and contradicted his Christian beliefs. He also argued that the warning letter would create a hardship in a future job search once he retires from Shawnee State.
In February 2020, a Cincinnati judge dismissed the case. But in March of 2021, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled this dismissal. The ruling said that Meriwether was punished for communicating on a matter of public concern. That there was “no suggestion” that Meriwether’s decision to avoid using feminine pronouns impacted his duties in the classroom. Nor were the operations of Shawnee State University hampered. As for the student who brought the complaint, that student received no denial of educational benefit. In fact, the student earned a high grade in the political philosophy course.
A Favorable Ruling
The March 2021 decision was a win for Meriwether and his counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom. It reversed a previous dismissal, allowing the case to advance. Interestingly, the court found that the university acted with religious hostility — not unlike the state of Colorado in Masterpiece, which they cited in their decision.
The ruling also dinged Shawnee State for inconsistencies. For example, Shawnee State first disciplined Meriwether for creating a hostile environment. Then they agreed, no, he hadn’t done that. But he treated the student differently! Later, in oral arguments, Shawnee State had shifted back to a hostile environment argument. Judges find stuff like that irritating. It looks like you’re desperately casting about looking for something that will stick.
Shawnee State made another mistake. When Meriwether’s dean, Dr. Milliken, told him that he was violating the university’s gender identity policy, Meriwether proposed a compromise. He would address Doe using Doe’s last name. He would refrain from using pronouns to address Doe. Dean Milliken accepted this accommodation. But a few weeks later, she retracted this agreement. She insisted that Meriwether use the student’s preferred pronouns if he intended to use pronouns to refer to other students.
A Favorable Outcome — For Now
These blunders may have proved pivotal in the university’s decision to settle the case. By allowing the case to move forward, the University likely recognized it was open to greater risk during the period known as discovery. So they opted to settle with Meriwether. For a whopping $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. In addition, they will rescind the written warning issued in June 2018.
Plenty of reason to celebrate. But I’m not sure it is as clean as if a court had sided in the Christian professor’s favor. The school’s policy prohibits gender-identity discrimination. Which they define as “how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves.” That policy — and that definition — remain in effect, as best as I can tell. With no religious exemption or accommodation.
The settlement does say that Meriwether will never be mandated to use specific pronouns. Even if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex. But it’s not clear these protections apply to other faculty at Shawnee State.
Meaning they certainly don’t apply elsewhere. So a similar case could pop up in the future. Somewhere.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).