- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2021

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a professor who was punished by his university for refusing to call a transgender student by the student’s female pronouns.

Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy teacher at Shawnee State University in Ohio, sued the school after officials prepared a written warning against him and threatened suspension without pay or termination if he refused to use female pronouns upon the student’s request.

A federal judge ruled earlier that Mr. Meriwether’s manner of addressing the student was not protected under the First Amendment and dismissed his claims related to free-speech and religious protections.

In a unanimous ruling Friday from a three-judge panel, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the school violated the professor’s right to free speech and his lawsuit can continue in a lower court.

“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,” wrote Judge Amul Thapar, a Trump appointee.

“But Shawnee State chose a different route: It 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 panel sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.

John Bursch, Mr. Meriwether’s lawyer and a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said the court’s message was effectively, “If Dr. Meriwether is able to prove these allegations true, these are constitutional violations, and he should win.”

Mr. Meriwether initially attempted to reason with the school and agreed to call the student by the student’s last name. The professor said calling the student by female pronouns would run afoul of his Christian faith.

Facing threats of termination, the professor sued Shawnee State University for infringing on his First Amendment rights.

A spokesperson from Shawnee State University declined to comment on the case. 

Ira Lupu, a law professor at The George Washington University, predicted that the case will reach a settlement.

“The professor has a right to express his general views on gender identity, and to refrain from using female pronouns for this transgender female student, but he did not assert and does not have a right to address her with male pronouns,” Mr. Lupu said.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the ruling is the first of its kind from a federal circuit court weighing LGBTQ rights and free speech in the gender-pronoun context. He said the decision is not inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent protecting LGBTQ rights in the workplace to be free from discrimination.

“The First Amendment protects the right not to use a pronoun that the speaker believes is wrong, and to use the referred-to person’s name instead,” Mr. Volokh said.

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