The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held Friday that public universities cannot compel professors to respect student pronoun preferences. Per the court, such speech is protected under the First Amendment, particularly if pronoun preferences go against a professor’s religious or philosophical beliefs.
The case stemmed out of a dispute between Professor Nicholas Meriwether and a transgender student at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. Meriwether teaches philosophy courses in the “Socratic” style, using formal, gendered titles in classes to encourage debate (Mr., Ms.). Jane Doe, the unnamed transgender student in the lawsuit, was a student of Meriwether’s. She requested that Meriwether use she/her pronouns, but Meriwether refused, stating that doing so would go against his religious beliefs.
In the following months, Shawnee State University officials finally reached a temporary compromise where Meriwether would refer to Doe by her last name only. But the compromise soon fell through, when Shawnee State’s Title IX office recommended disciplinary charges against Meriwether for discrimination. Meriwether then brought suit in federal district court, where it was dismissed.
Upon appeal, arguments were heard in November and the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s dismissal.
In its opinion, the court states that academic freedom in colleges is of paramount importance, and exposing students to contrarian views is an essential part of a college education. The opinion further states that supporting transgender students’ pronoun preferences is an ideological task, and sends a message that professors can disagree with: “People can have a gender identity inconsistent with their sex at birth.”
The opinion further states:
If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that 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 address his students as “comrades.”
This decision comes amidst a wave of transgender-rights cases currently ongoing across the US. Alabama is on track to pass a bill that would make providing any gender-affirming treatment for transgender youth a felony. Several states are also considering or have recently passed bills that would prohibit transgender youth from playing school sports on teams that align with their gender identity.