For more information please call  800.727.2766


Public University Professor Free Speech Rights Regarding Personal Pronouns Upheld

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a university professor to publicly protest the use of a transgender student’s choice of pronoun.

Professor Nicholas Meriwether taught philosophy at Shawnee State University. In 2016, the University directed the faculty to refer to students by their “preferred pronoun[s].” In 2018, Meriwether taught Political Philosophy, using the Socratic method to lead discussions. When calling on students, Meriwether referred to them as Mr. or Ms., which he believed was important in creating a serious atmosphere. One student, referred to as “Doe” in the complaint, approached Meriwether after class. She notified him that she wanted to be addressed with female pronouns. Meriwether responded that he was uncomfortable with the request because of his strong religious beliefs. After Doe complained, the University advised Meriwether not to use gender-based language in referring to any of the students. Meriwether declined, agreeing instead to refer to Doe by her last name only. Doe objected. The University directed Meriwether to refer to Doe as she had requested. When he refused to comply without publicly noting his views on gender identity, the University disciplined him. He sued.

Meriwether argued the University violated the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment in its application of the gender-identity policy. The Sixth Circuit discussed prior court decisions holding that the Free Speech Clause applies at public universities. While public employees lose some protection when they make statements pursuant to their official duties, the courts have created exceptions in academia. According to the court, the question remained to what extent does the First Amendment protect professors. The appellate court found that professors at public institutions “retain First Amendment protections at least when engaged in core academic functions, such as teaching and scholarship,” joining the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits in a similar conclusion. The court stated: “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity.” In this instance, the court concluded gender identity is currently a matter of public concern, and the First Amendment protects the right of individuals to “voice a different view.” Universities are “beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom” and “forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated.” The University’s interest, in this case, did not override Meriwether’s Free Speech interests. The court similarly held that the University violated Meriwether’s rights under the Free Exercise Clause.