A public university in Ohio will pay $400,000 to a philosophy professor who refused to use a student's preferred pronouns. The settlement arrives four years after the school punished the professor for not using a student's preferred pronouns. The legal team for the professor argued the university violated the professor's First Amendment rights.
During a political philosophy class in January 2018, Shawnee State University professor Nick Meriwether responded to a biological male student's question by saying, "Yes, sir." When the class ended, the student confronted Meriwether. The student declared to be transgender, and to be referred to as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns.
"When Meriwether did not instantly agree, the student became belligerent and promised to get Meriwether fired," according to the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The student filed a complaint with the university, which triggered a formal investigation into the incident.
Meriwether said the pronouns would force him to speak and act "contrary to his own Christian convictions and philosophical beliefs."
Meriwether reportedly offered to address the student by the individual's first or last name, but the student insisted the professor use the preferred pronouns.
Shawnee State University also rejected Meriwether's compromise, and claimed that "he effectively created a hostile environment." The university also slapped the professor with a written warning in his personnel file and threatened "further corrective actions" unless he used the student's preferred pronouns.
Meriwether countered with a lawsuit, asserting that the Portsmouth-based school violated his First Amendment rights and his 14th Amendment right to due process.
The lawsuit was dismissed in February 2020, but was revived by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2021.
"[Shawnee State University] punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue. And it did so despite the constitutional protections afforded by the First Amendment," a three-judge panel wrote in their unanimous opinion. "The district court dismissed the professor's free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse."
On Thursday, the Alliance Defending Freedom announced that Meriwether had won his case against the university. Shawnee State University will pay $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to settle the federal lawsuit with Meriwether.
"As part of the settlement, the university has agreed that Meriwether has the right to choose when to use, or avoid using, titles or pronouns when referring to or addressing students," the ADF declared. "Significantly, the university agreed Meriwether will never be mandated to use pronouns, including if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex."
"This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief – that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job," ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in a statement. "Dr. Meriwether went out of his way to accommodate his students and treat them all with dignity and respect, yet his university punished him because he wouldn't endorse an ideology that he believes is false."
"We're pleased to see the university recognize that the First Amendment guarantees Dr. Meriwether – and every other American – the right to speak and act in a manner consistent with one's faith and convictions," Barham said.
"Public universities should welcome intellectual and ideological diversity, where all students and professors can engage in meaningful discussions without compromising their core beliefs," said ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. "Dr. Meriwether rightly defended his freedom to speak and stay silent, and not conform to the university's demand for uniformity of thought. We commend the university for ultimately agreeing to do the right thing, in keeping with its reason for existence as a marketplace of ideas."