Story at a glance

  • Professor Nicholas Meriwether refused to refer to a transgender student by female pronouns on the grounds that it would violate his Christian beliefs.
  • After Shawnee State University issued a written warning to Meriwether, he sued the school.
  • A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed the professor’s lawsuit.

A judge has ruled that Shawnee State University did not violate a professor's constitutional rights by punishing him for referring to a transgender female student by male pronouns.

The lawsuit was filed in November 2018 after the university issued a written warning to Nicholas Meriwether, a professor in the Philosophy department, for violating the Ohio university’s nondiscrimination policy. University officials told the professor, who refers to students by titles such as mister and miss, that he could either eliminate all sex-based titles or pronouns when talking to students or honor students' gender identities. 

"Public universities have no business compelling people to express ideological beliefs that they don’t hold. And we are currently evaluating our next steps with our client in ensuring that these basic principles are respected," said Meriwether’s attorney, Travis Barham, in a statement after the decision on Feb. 12. 

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Meriwether, a "professing evangelical Christian" and member of the Presbyterian Church of America, claimed in the lawsuit that the school was violating his first amendment freedoms of both speech and religion. Shawnee State University asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying that it was in the professor’s job description to honor the student’s gender. 

The school said in a statement it values “freedom of expression” and maintains “an educational and work environment that is free from discrimination, retaliation and harassment.”

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott sided with the university, saying the professor’s choice to call the student “sir” was not protected under the first amendment. The decision is in line with a recommendation from Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz. 

“The speech here occurred in the context of plaintiff's employment; it was limited to titles and pronouns used to address one student in plaintiff's class: the speech was directed to plaintiff and heard only by her and her fellow students; and absent any further explanation or elaboration, the speech cannot reasonably be construed as having conveyed any beliefs or stated any facts about gender identity,” Dlott said in her opinion.

In a statement, Meriwether said he would continue the case. 

“Philosophy especially — but certainly higher education in general — is all about the free exchange of ideas, but this exchange cannot happen unless faculty and students are in fact free to share their views,” he said. 

Published on Feb 18, 2020