A public university in Ohio has agreed to pay $400,000 to one of its professors after it rebuked him for refusing to use a student’s pronouns.
In 2018, Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in southern Ohio, addressed a transgender student as “sir” when she raised her hand in class.
This prompted the university to launch an investigation into the incident. It found that Meriwether had created a “hostile environment” in the classroom.
The university delivered Meriwether has written warning that stated that he could be fired or suspended without pay for violating the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
Meriwether asked if referring to all students by their self-identified gender, and including a disclaimer in his syllabus that noted he was only doing so under “compulsion”, would comply with the university’s policies, which he was told would not.
He also offered to refer to the student by either first or last preferred legal name without using gendered titles, but continued to refuse to refer to the student as a woman.
Meriwether then sued the university, but had his case dismissed by a federal district court due to lack of standing.
However, in 2020, a three-judge panel from the sixth US circuit court of appeals ruled that Meriwether is allowed to sue the school, writing in a 32-page opinion: “Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom . They have prided themselves on being forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated. And they have tried not to stifle debate by picking sides.”
The judges, all of whom were Republican appointees, with two having been nominated by Donald Trump, added: “But Shawnee State chose a different route: He punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue. And it did so despite the constitutional protections afforded by the first amendment.
“The district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.”
The judges sent the lawsuit back to the lower court, where Meriwether could have argued that his rights to free speech and religion, as well as his 14th amendment right to due process, were violated and denied.
As a result of the case, the university last week agreed to pay Meriwether $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
In a separate statement, Shawnee State University explained their “economic decision” to settle the case, saying: “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.”
It added: “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. That cost is better spent on fulfilling Shawnee State’s mission of service to our students, families and community.”