Shawnee State and Prof Settle Pronoun Dispute

After a four-year legal battle, the professor won the right to ignore students' pronoun preferences
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 19, 2022 2:35 PM CDT
University Settles Lawsuit Over Gender Pronouns
In this Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 photo Harvard Medical School student Aliya Feroe, of Minneapolis, Minn., displays a button featuring pronouns on the lapel of her lab coat. The pronoun button is meant to show support for preferred gender pronouns.   (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

(Newser) – Shawnee State University has reached a settlement with philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether: he’ll get $400,000, plus he will not be required to use gender pronouns that offend his religious beliefs. In a statement, the Ohio school said it was "an economic decision," per CNN: "Though we have decided to settle, we adamantly deny that anyone at Shawnee State deprived Dr. Meriwether of his [First Amendment rights]." In essence, the settlement means the school can avoid an expensive and divisive lawsuit that could have had major implications for other education institutions.

The dispute stems from a 2018 incident when a transgender student raised her hand in class. Meriwether replied to her with a "yes, sir," which offended the student. Per the Daily Mail, the student approached after class and asked the professor to use her preferred pronouns, but he refused, citing his religious beliefs. The student complained to administrators, who in turn placed a formal warning in the professor’s file and threatened "further corrective actions" if he did not comply with the stated policy. Meriwether filed a federal suit in 2018, which was dismissed, but he appealed. In 2021, a three-judge panel with the US 6th Circuit reversed the ruling, with Trump appointee Amul Thapar writing, "First Amendment interests are especially strong … because Meriwether's speech also relates to his core religious and philosophical beliefs."

The Columbus Dispatch says LGBTQ advocates were worried about the lawsuit’s potential precedent-setting nature. "If this case were to come out poorly, the implications [would be] devastating, honestly, for young people on college campuses," a director with Equality Ohio told the paper at the time. The settlement averts that outcome, but those on Meriwether’s side are still pleased, including Tyson Langhofer, counsel for the Alliance for Defending Freedom, who says (also per the Dispatch): "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." (Read more pronouns stories.)

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