By Joshua Arnold
After spending four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, a publicly funded university in Ohio has finally agreed to do what they should have done in the first place — respect a professor’s First Amendment right to free speech. As part of the settlement, Shawnee State University agreed to pay $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees, rescind a written warning issued against him in June 2018, and lift all requirements for the professor to use false pronouns to identify a student.
The controversy began in 2018, when “a male student” demanded that Philosophy professor Dr. Nicholas Meriwether identify him “with feminine titles and pronouns,” explained his attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Logan Spena. Meriwether “was unwilling to use those terms to communicate a message that someone’s gender or sexual identity is based solely on their subjective identity and not their sex.” He “offered to use any name the student requested instead of titles and pronouns,” ADF explained, “but the university rejected that compromise, instead forcing the professor to speak contrary to his religious convictions and philosophical beliefs.” The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Meriwether in March 2021, but it took another year for the university to finally settle the lawsuit.
Not that Shawnee State University has repented of wrongdoing, or even acknowledged defeat. “After four years of litigation, Shawnee State University made an economic decision to settle the Meriwether case,” the university said. They “continue to stand behind a student’s right to a discrimination-free learning environment.” In other words, their lawyers warned them to cut their losses because they had no chance of winning. They didn’t have a change of heart. They simply knew they were going to lose.
The university continued, “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.” Unfortunately for them, the Meriwether case was no “he said, she said” situation, as their statement insinuates; they did not dispute the facts of the case. Shawnee State still denies that Dr. Meriwether or any professor has any free speech or free exercise rights when those rights would clash with the transgender ideology. I’m no biologist, but something tells me they should get their brains checked.
School officials then claimed that punishing Meriwether was simply following “federal law that protects students or any individual from bigotry and discrimination.” They simply will not accept that their discriminatory persecution of Professor Meriwether violated the law — even after a court told them so. “The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals… said that the university could not condition his ability to hold a job as a professor on his willingness to affirm the state’s orthodoxy,” said Spena.
Whatever planet Shawnee State administrators think they live on, “they’re going to be compelled to respect the… First Amendment [rights] of professors,” Spena said. Not only does the Sixth Circuit’s opinion protect constitutional rights in its jurisdiction, but it sets “guideposts for courts across the country… because it precisely lays out a really compelling analysis on really kind of every legal front that deals with the issue of compelled pronouns in school,” Spena explained, from finding that the university had an interest in fostering viewpoint diversity, to finding that Shawnee State violated Meriwether’s free exercise rights, as well as free speech. Spena added, “universities who simply want to avoid big damages” should “read the opinion and follow the First Amendment.”
Despite the growing prevalence of educational institutions pushing an ideology of sexual confusion, “people like Dr. Meriwether are standing up, and they’re finding — with good help — that the First Amendment protects their rights.” Legal aid groups like ADF, First Liberty, and Liberty Counsel are on the frontlines of defending our constitutional right to speak the truth, directly opposing — and often defeating — the powerful cultural forces denying “that there are such things as sexes or that there are such things as males or females,” as Spena summarized. “We need more people who are willing to stand up and say that enough is enough.” When they do, the court often proves them right.