Shawnee State University will pay a professor $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to settle a lawsuit over not using a student’s preferred pronoun.
In 2018, Shawnee State philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether called a transgender student “sir” during a lecture when she raised her hand, which sparked an investigation by school officials who found that Meriwether had created a “hostile environment.”
Read more about the lawsuit:Shawnee State professor’s lawsuit could have ramifications for preferred pronoun use and more
He was given a written warning that he could be fired or suspended without pay for violating the university’s nondiscrimination policy.
On March 26, 2021, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Meriwether could sue the university for what he said was a violation of his constitutional rights.
The settlement, which was reached on April 14, rescinds the written warning the university issued in June 2018 and “affirms his right to address students consistent with his beliefs,” according to the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF), a conservative Christian nonprofit organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, that represented Meriwether in the case.
“We believe this not only protects the rights of Dr. Meriwether, it protects the rights of all professors to not be punished for simply declining to express an ideological belief that they disagree with,” said Tyson Langhofer, ADF’s senior counsel and director of the Center for Academic Freedom.
The ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals means professors don’t have to adhere to a student’s preferred pronouns, Langhofer said.
Shawnee State said in a statement that it “made an economic decision to settle the Meriwether case.”
“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. We continue to stand behind a student’s right to a discrimination-free learning environment as well as the rights of faculty, visitors, students and employees to freely express their ideas and beliefs. 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,” the statement reads.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights said it is disappointed by the settlement.
“We believe his lawsuit should have been dismissed and would have failed had the case continued,” Asaf Orr, senior staff attorney and director of the Transgender Youth Project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in an email.
“Regardless of this settlement, Shawnee State’s legal obligation to protect transgender students from discrimination remains intact. We remain committed to taking all necessary actions to safeguard the rights of transgender students at Shawnee State.”
Equality Ohio is concerned about the chilling effect this could have on students’ speech.
“We are encouraged by the number of colleges and universities that continue to do the right, legal thing and use correct student names and pronouns and visibly support their LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff,” Deputy Director of Equality Ohio Siobhan Boyd-Nelson said in an email.
Preferred pronouns at Shawnee State
In 2018, the student explained to Meriwether after class that she identifies as a woman and asked that he use her preferred pronouns. Meriwether refused the request by the student, who is identified in court documents as Jane Doe.
Meriwether contended that the university’s action violated his First Amendment right to free of speech and free exercise of religion and sued in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Columbus.
‘Mission drift’:Who do rural Ohio’s higher education institutions serve?
“Since Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom, his free-speech claim may proceed,” the appeals court’s 32-page opinion states.
Meriwether, who has taught at Shawnee State since 1996, previously told The Dispatch that his Christian faith was a big reason why he chose not to call the student by her preferred pronoun. He said he also had philosophical, scientific and biological reasons.
“I simply could not comply with that,” he previously said.
Shawnee State, which had 3,135 students enrolled for fall 2021, is located 92 miles south of Columbus in Portsmouth in Scioto County, along the Ohio River. The university adopted a non-discrimination policy on April 12, 2019, that prohibits discrimination because of gender identity. There is no specific preferred pronoun policy.