Tyson Langhofer is senior attorney and director of the Center for Academic Freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom. The conservative Christian legal advocacy group represented Nicholas Meriwether in his case against Shawnee State University. @ADFLegal
” What’s the problem ? It’s just a pronoun.”
This was the typical response Professor Nicholas Meriwether received when he initially voiced his objections to his university’s policy of requiring professors to refer to students with a title or pronoun different from the students’ biological sex.
But as a professor of philosophy, religion and ethics, Meriwether knows that words matter because they communicate ideas. Ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims. And now, thanks to a recent court victory, he can continue to teach the next generation of students how to recognize the difference between ideas that promote human flourishing and those that harm it.
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Meriwether has been a professor at Shawnee State University for over 25 years. In January 2018, during a lesson, he answered a student’s question by saying: “Yes, sir”.
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After class, the student asked to be referred to as female, with female titles and pronouns. When Meriwether didn’t immediately agree, the student got angry and promised to have him fired.
Meriwether suggested using only the student’s preferred first or last name and avoiding pronouns. But ultimately, university officials rejected any compromise that would allow him to speak his conscience.
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Although the student completed the course and got a good grade, the university disciplined Meriwether. They placed a warning in his personnel file and threatened “further corrective action” unless he articulated the university’s ideological message.
Meriwether filed a lawsuit through her lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom, arguing that the university’s policy and its disciplinary action against her violated her rights to free speech and free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.
He recognized that it was not just a pronoun; it’s about what that pronoun means. It’s about asserting an ideology.
He also understood what many others do not understand. An ideology that compelled a teacher to use certain words would not stop there.
He would demand full compliance until he suppresses all dissent.
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Over the next four years, the radical ideology of gender identity has become prevalent in universities, K-12 public schools, big tech, corporations, and mainstream media.
Many who dare to question the tenets of this ideology are summarily quashed.
Fortunately, Meriwether’s case demonstrates that if those affected by these policies take a stand, they can win. After the District Court denied his claims, the 6th Circuit ruled in his favor.
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As this court stated, “American universities have traditionally been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. They have prided themselves on being forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated. And they tried not to stifle the debate by choosing sides.
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“But Shawnee State chose a different course: It punished a professor for his speech on a highly controversial issue. And it did so despite the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment.”
The court explained that if “professors did not have protections for free speech when teaching, a university would exercise alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A college president might ask a pacifist to declare 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 call his students “comrades”. It cannot be.”
As part of the settlement following the decision, the university agreed that it could not compel Meriwether to speak messages he disagreed with and paid $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. .
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Hopefully, Meriwether’s victory will serve as a wake-up call to institutions of higher learning across the country and other institutions pushing this ideology. The response to speech we disagree with is not censorship, it’s more speech.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Opinion: What Professor Shawnee State May Mean for Using Preferred Pronouns