Nicole Lashomb of The Rainbow Times explains, “Misgendering a person who’s transgender may not seem like a big deal for those responsible for the misgendering, but such careless actions often wreak havoc on the psyche of the transgender affected individual.” Misgendering is defined by Merriam-Webster as “to identify the gender of (a person, such as a transsexual or transgender person) incorrectly (as by using an incorrect label or pronoun).”
When colleges began allowing their students to choose their own pronouns as early as 2009, the changes were applauded by transgender advocates, and by 2015, it became more common for colleges and universities to let students choose their gender pronouns.
These policies adopted by higher education weren’t without pushback. After Shawnee State University, located in Portsmouth, Ohio, introduced the policy in 2016, philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether informed the school’s administration the policy went against his beliefs as a Christian, however, it wouldn’t be until 2018 when he had a student that the policy was applicable. After refusing to address a student by their chosen pronouns, Shawnee State reprimanded Meriwether for violating the policy which prompted him to file a lawsuit against the school.
While the lawsuit was dismissed at the district court level, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals court ruled on Friday in favor of Meriwether, allowing the professor to argue his case that his freedom of speech was violated by the university.
One of the judges, Amul Thupar noted in the opinion of the 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. And they have tried not to stifle debate by picking sides. 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 district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.”
Representing Meriwether in his suit against Shawnee State is Alliance Defending Freedom, who have been known to challenge laws and policies that are deemed to infringe on religious freedom. Both Meriwether and his lawyer appeared on Fox News in 2019 to discuss the case after it had been dismissed.
Meriwether also wrote a piece for The Hill, where he pronounced:
“What I cannot do, however, is to speak in such a way that implies that a man is a woman or a woman a man. In other words, to refer to a student in such a way that I imply something that is not true, that I know to be false, to effectively lie, and so violate my conscience as a philosopher and as a Christian.”
The question is whether or not Meriwether’s freedom of speech extends to giving him the right to intentionally misgender his students all for the sake of his beliefs. Meriwether’s case comes at a time where there are many attacks at the state government level against the trans community. According to CNN and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), there are 28 states where anti-transgender legislation is being introduced.
Sources: The Rainbow Times, Merriam-Webster, Associated Press, uscourts.gov, CNN, The Hill