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Professor loses landmark legal battle after claiming it’s ‘free speech’ to deliberately misgender trans students

Nick Duffy February 17, 2020
Nicholas Meriwether lost his legal case against Shawnee State University

Nicholas Meriwether lost his legal case against Shawnee State University (Photo: ADF)

A professor who claimed “free speech” means he has the right to deliberately misgender transgender students without repercussions has lost his legal battle.

Nicholas Meriwether, a religious philosophy professor at Ohio’s Shawnee State University, had sued his employer with help from anti-LGBT lobbying group Alliance Defending Freedom, claiming that it had infringed upon his freedom of speech and religion by asking him to stop referring to female transgender students as men.

Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents a plethora of clients seeking the freedom to discriminate against LGBT+ people, had attempted to build on its previous Supreme Court victory representing ‘no gays’ baker Jack Phillips. 

However, a federal court last week dismissed his action – finding that the university did not infringe on Meriwether’s rights by asking him to stop using “sir” and “Mr” to address the student, identified as Jane Doe in the lawsuit.

Misgendering your students is not free speech, judge makes clear.

Judge Susan J Dlott, of the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio Western Division, affirmed in her February 12 ruling that Meriwether “failed to state a claim for violation of his rights under the United States Constitution” and that his use of male titles and pronouns to address Doe “was not protected under the First Amendment.”

Dlott accepted an earlier opinion from magistrate judge Karen Litkovitz, who wrote: “By referring to Doe in male terms or by using Doe’s last name only, plaintiff… was not sharing ideas or inviting discussion but was directing his personal beliefs toward Doe, who objected to his speech, and other members of a captive audience who were not free to leave his class or decline to participate in class.

“The speech did not take place in the context or a broader discussion, and there was no admitted academic purpose or justification.”

FREE SPEECH: The Shawnee State University professor lost his 'free speech' battle
The Shawnee State University professor lost his ‘free speech’ battle (Photo: Tstrickland/CC BY-SA 4.0

The opinion also noted that the university had given Meriwether multiple opportunities to alter his conduct and that he rejected proposed accommodations.

Trans students ‘have been living in fear’ over legal case.

The ruling was celebrated by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which intervened on behalf of Shawnee State’s LGBT+ student group SAGA.

Asaf Orr, senior staff attorney and director of the Transgender Youth Project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said: “We are pleased the Court affirmed that schools can ensure that all students are able to learn and the access educational opportunities available to all students without fear of discrimination.”

Jae Keniston, President of SAGA, added: “Since this lawsuit began, transgender students have been worried that they would have to start skipping classes or avoid particular professors because Shawnee State would no longer be able to effectively address bullying, harassment, and mistreatment of transgender students.

“SAGA and its members are relieved that the Court recognised the importance of Shawnee State’s antidiscrimination and anti-harassment policies to transgender people on campus.

“This is a big step towards progress for all transgender people on Shawnee State’s campus.”

More: misgendering, Nicholas Meriwether, Shawnee State University

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