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Professor wins lawsuit against university over using preferred pronouns

Ohio professor was awarded $400K after suing the university over being forced to use student’s preferred pronouns

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and lawyers volunteering to work with ADF have negotiated a $400,000.00 settlement of a lawsuit on behalf of their client, Philosophy professor Dr. Nick Meriwether. Meriwether v. The Trustees of Shawnee State University. Many people will find the facts of this case to be troubling, particularly the minutiae of details describing the smug behavior of the Shawnee University personnel and the aggressive, opportunistic behavior of the transgender student. The history of the lawsuit can be read on the ADF website.

The ADF post reports that “Philosophy professor Dr. Nick Meriwether’s three-year quest to vindicate his First Amendment rights has concluded with a settlement in his favor. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in March 2021 that the university violated Meriwether’s free speech rights when it punished him because he declined a male student’s demand to be referred to as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. Meriwether had offered to use any name the student requested instead of titles and pronouns, but the university rejected that compromise, instead forcing the professor to speak contrary to his religious convictions and philosophical beliefs.”

Additionally, 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. “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.”

ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said: “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.” Barham added: “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.”

ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, commented: “Public universities should welcome intellectual and ideological diversity, where all students and professors can engage in meaningful discussions without compromising their core beliefs..”

As part of the settlement in Meriwether v. The Trustees of Shawnee State University, the university agreed to pay $400,000 in damages and Meriwether’s attorneys’ fees. Additionally, considering the 6th Circuit’s ruling, the university is rescinding the written warning it issued Meriwether in June 2018. In light of the settlement, ADF attorneys filed a voluntary dismissal of the case Thursday.

A post on National Review provided background that led to the litigation. The controversy began in January 18 when Meriwether responded to the student’s question during a political philosophy class by saying, “Yes, sir.” After class, the student told the professor that the student is transgender and asked to be referred to as a woman going forward, including with “feminine titles and pronouns,” according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Meriwether in court.

The professor argued that obliging the student’s requests would violate his own convictions as a Christian. When the professor declined to use female pronouns, the student became belligerent and told Meriwether he would be fired, according to court documents cited by Fox News. The student then filed a complaint with Shawnee State, which opened an investigation into the incident. The university found that the professor “effectively created a hostile environment” for the student by not using the preferred pronouns. Meriwether offered to call the student by any name requested, however. The student did not accept the professor’s offer, according to the report.

The university placed a written warning in the professor’s personnel file warning that “further corrective actions” could be taken if a similar incident occurred. Meriwether then sued the university, arguing that it violated his “right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment.” The settlement comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit in March 2021, allowing the professor’s lawsuit to move forward.

ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer added: “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.”