After four years of legal battles, Shawnee University in Ohio has reached a $400,000 settlement with one of its professors, who sued the university after being reprimanded in 2018 for not addressing a transgender student by his preferred pronouns. The teacher, Nicholas Meriwether, had referred to a biologically male student as ‘sir,’ to which the student objected, preferring instead to be addressed with feminine pronouns. This, however, conflicted with the philosophy professor’s Christian beliefs. The professor opted to use the student’s chosen name instead, but his offer was rejected. The university then sent Meriwether a written warning about his behavior, but Meriwether took matters to court, as he felt this was an infringement on his First Amendment rights to free speech and religious freedom.
In a statement by Meriwether’s attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, Senior Counsel Travis Barham commented on the case:
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. 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.
Besides the financial settlement, this also means that Dr. Meriwether will not be required to use the preferred pronouns of his students. “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,” the statement by Meriwether’s lawyers specifies.
Shawnee University in turn also released a statement, referring to the settlement as an “economic decision.”
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. In this case, Shawnee State followed its policy and federal law that protects students or any individual from bigotry and discrimination. 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.
The statement by the university also bemoaned, that “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 school considered that cost “better spent on fulfilling Shawnee State’s mission of service” to its “students, families and community.”
The settlement could potentially become a precedent, as similar cases of teaching staff being compelled to use politically correct speech have become public over the last years. Most famously, Jordan Peterson’s opposition to using what he referred to as “mandated speech” catapulted the Toronto professor to world-wide fame in 2016.