Shawnee State University and Prof. Nicholas Meriwether have agreed to a $400,000 settlement after the professor faced disciplinary action for declining to use the preferred pronouns of a self-identified transgender student. The university still denied claims it had violated the professor’s free speech and religious freedom, though the professor’s attorneys claimed victory.
“Dr. Meriwether went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with dignity and respect, yet his university punished him because he wouldn’t endorse an ideology that he believes is false,” Travis Barham, senior counsel with the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, said April 14. “We’re pleased to see the university recognize that the First Amendment guarantees Dr. Meriwether—and every other American—the right to speak and act in a manner consistent with one’s faith and convictions.”
For 25 years, Meriwether has served as a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University, a public university of about 3,400 undergraduates in Portsmouth, Ohio. He had faced possible disciplinary action from the university if he declined to use the preferred pronouns of a male student who identified as a transgender woman.
“Public universities should welcome intellectual and ideological diversity, where all students and professors can engage in meaningful discussions without compromising their core beliefs,” said Tyson Langhofer, another senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom and director of its Center for Academic Freedom.
Langhofer said the professor “rightly defended his freedom to speak and stay silent, and not conform to the university’s demand for uniformity of thought.”
The settlement means that the university will pay $400,000 in damages, and pay for Meriwether’s attorneys’ fees. The university has rescinded its June 2018 written warning to the professor that he could be fired or suspended without pay for violating its anti-discrimination policy.
Shawnee University said it “made an economic decision to settle the Meriwether case,” the Columbus Dispatch reports.
“Though we have decided to settle, we adamantly deny that anyone at Shawnee State deprived Dr. Meriwether of his free speech rights or his rights to freely exercise his religion,” the university added. “We continue to stand behind a student’s right to a discrimination-free learning environment as well as the rights of faculty, visitors, students and employees to freely express their ideas and beliefs.”
The university voiced other objections to the lawsuit.
“Over the course of this lawsuit, it became clear that the case was being used to advance divisive social and political agendas at a cost to the university and its students,” it said.
Barham, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney, had a different view, saying “this case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief—that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job.”
In 2018 a male student who identifies as a transgender woman asked Meriwether to refer to him as a woman and to use female titles and pronouns during his political philosophy class. According to a magistrate judge’s report, Meriwether later recounted that the student “appears male” and no one seeing the student would assume the student to be “biologically female.”
The professor voiced doubts that he could comply. Meriwether first made efforts to refer to the student by his last name, but accidentally referred to the student as “Mr.”
The student threatened a lawsuit against the university, and under pressure from the university, Meriwether agreed to address the student using preferred pronouns on the condition he could put a disclaimer in his syllabus stating his real views and the duress he believed himself to be under. This move was rejected.
University officials sided with the student and said the professor violated school non-discrimination policy and could be fired or suspended without pay. The policy did not explicitly include gender identity until April 2019.
Meriwether said the student received high grades and was not treated differently than other students.
The professor’s faculty union unsuccessfully appealed the disciplinary action before he filed his lawsuit. In March 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Meriwether’s lawsuit could proceed.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights was among those representing the student and the Sexuality and Gender Acceptance student group at Shawnee State.
Asaf Orr, the group’s senior staff attorney and director, said the lawsuit should have been dismissed and her group believes it would have failed had it been allowed to proceed.
“Regardless of this settlement, Shawnee State’s legal obligation to protect transgender students from discrimination remains intact. We remain committed to taking all necessary actions to safeguard the rights of transgender students at Shawnee State,” she said in an email, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
The LGBT advocacy group Equality Ohio said the settlement could have a chilling effect on students’ speech. Ohio Siobhan Boyd-Nelson, the group’s deputy executive director, said the “right, legal thing” is to “use correct student names and pronouns and visibly support their LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff.”
“Misgendering” is a major taboo for many supporters of transgender identity and for many who identify as transgender. This position is rapidly becoming normalized under strict interpretations of anti-discrimination law and policies which treat “gender identity” as a protected class akin to race or sex. News coverage of these controversies can face censorship on social media which have the same policies.
Meriwether himself discussed the case in a Sept. 28, 2020 opinion essay for The Hill. He contended “leftist professors and students enjoy enormous leeway, protected from any message that might question their views or ‘offend’ them.”
“But conservative and traditionally religious professors and students who dare cross the leftist party line, such as the requirement to speak precisely as ‘woke’ ideology demands, are subject to discriminatory policies and even dismissal,” he said.
Meriwether said his own college experience did not affirm his own identity of “Protestant orthodoxy,” and in his recollection when he was a student a respected professor “gave a public lecture on campus about how people like me are destroying the planet.”
He had seen these differences of views as part of the college environment, believing “I can’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I hope they extend the same courtesy to me.” However, he now questions whether this still described the college experience.