Philosophy professor’s lawsuit against university for addressing trans students reinstated

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned an earlier dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a professor of philosophy against his employer, Shawnee State University, for violating his rights of first and second. fourteenth amendment.

Nicolas meriwether

Philosophy teacher Nicholas Meriwether had sued the school, claiming it violated his freedom of speech, his freedom of religion and his due process rights when he sanctioned him for alleged ill-treatment at the school. against a transgender student in one of his classes. The student, a trans woman, had asked Dr. Meriwether to refer to her using feminine pronouns and titles. Dr Meriwether, an evangelical Christian, refused, saying it was forbidden by his religion. Dr Meriwether also declined his dean’s compromise suggestion to stop using headings and pronouns to address his students.

The lower court dismissed the case. Now the Federal Court of Appeal has overturned the dismissal, allowing the case to continue.

The lower court had said that “universities can sanction professors whose teaching attitudes and teaching methods do not conform to institutional standards” and that “although public universities cannot force professors to approve or avoid specific points of view, the First Amendment does not prohibit a public university from requiring that its professors treat each other and their students with civility. In contrast, the Federal Court rejected the idea that the rhetoric involved in addressing students by gender was merely a formal administrative matter, arguing instead that this rhetoric – and its regulation by the university – advances substantial views on a matter of public interest. The court writes:

The need for free exchange of ideas in the college classroom is different from that of other public workplaces. And the classroom speech of a professor to his students is anything but the speech of an ordinary government employee. In fact, in the college classroom, there are three interests at stake (all supporting robust speech protection): (1) the interest of students in receiving an informed opinion, (2) the professor’s right to disseminate his or her own opinion, and (3) the public interest to expose our future leaders to different points of view. See Lane v. Franks, 573 US 228, 236 (2014); Sweezy, US 354-250 (plurality notice). Because the First Amendment “must always be applied” in the light of the particular characteristics of the. . . environment ‘in the particular case’, Healy, 408 US to 180 (modified in original) (citing Tinker, 393 US to 506), public universities are not licensed to act as thought police in the classroom. They cannot force professors to avoid controversial views altogether out of respect for state-imposed orthodoxy. Otherwise, our public universities could turn the next generation of leaders into “closed-loop recipients of what the state chooses to communicate.” Tinker, 393 US at 511. Thus, “what constitutes a matter of public interest and what raises problems of academic freedom are essentially of the same nature”. Dambrot, 55 F.3d at 1188.

Of course, some classroom speeches do not fall under the exception: a university could, for example, require teachers to call up lists at the start of the class, and this type of non-ideological ministerial task would not be protected by the former. amendment. Shawnee State says the rule at issue is also ministerial. But as we discuss below, titles and pronouns carry a message. The university recognizes this and wants its professors to use pronouns to communicate a message: people can have a gender identity incompatible with their sex at birth. But Meriwether does not agree with this message, and he does not want to communicate it to his students. It is not a question of classroom management; it is a question of academic discourse.

In an article on the case at The Washington Post, Andrew Koppelman, professor of law (with appointments in political science and philosophy) at Northwestern University, reportedly said of the court’s reasoning:

As a hypothetical, suppose a professor thinks the honorary title “Mr.” is fine, but not for African Americans because it gives African Americans a respect he doesn’t think he deserves. I think a court would say that alone would create a hostile environment. I don’t understand why applying the wrong honorary title only to transgender students doesn’t also create a hostile environment.

You can read the full text of the court decision here.

[UPDATE: A small correction has been made to this post in light of the helpful comment, below, from Louis F. Cooper.]

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