According to U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott, the First Amendment covers a lot of ground. But if you think that it protects you from having to use a transgender individual’s preferred pronouns, you’ve got another think coming.
Shawnee State University Professor Nicholas Meriwether found that out firsthand last week after bringing a lawsuit against his employers.
The situation kicked off in January 2018, when Meriwether, an evangelical Christian, met a new student attending his philosophy course. The student, Alena Bruening, is a biological male who currently identifies as female, as is the newfangled trend. Bruening demanded that Professor Meriwether address him using only female pronouns: “she/her/hers.”
Professor Meriwether, being grounded in reality, refused to play into Bruening’s delusions and informed him that he’d be using the pronouns and honorariums that align with that reality.
Bruening, offended, “became belligerent and said, ‘Well, I guess that means I can call you a c**t.’”
In a normal world, this would have been the end of Bruening’s academic pursuits at Shawnee State University. In this one, Meriwether attempted to find an acceptable compromise. He reported the incident to college officials and explained that he would strike a deal: He was “not willing to refer to Bruening as a woman,” but he would simply use the student’s last name instead of attaching a “Mr.” to it, as he did with other students in the class.
Shawnee State administrators launched an investigation into the situation. At the conclusion of that investigation, they did not, as you might have imagined, suspend or expel Bruening. And they didn’t agree to Meriwether’s offered compromise.
Of course not.
Instead, they determined that Professor Meriwether had “created a hostile environment for Bruening,” and they issued him a warning for violating the school’s “nondiscriminatory policy.”
Instead of accepting that he had to deny biological reality in order to keep his job, Meriwether enlisted the services of the legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom and filed suit against the school, accusing them of punishing him for “expressing views that differ from its own orthodoxy and for declining to express its mandated ideological message.”
In dismissing the lawsuit last week, Judge Dlott concluded that Meriwether “was not protected by the First Amendment.”
“The speech here occurred in the context of plaintiff’s employment,” she wrote in her opinion. “It was limited to titles and pronouns used to address one student in plaintiff’s class: the speech was directed to plaintiff and heard only by her and her fellow students; and absent any further explanation or elaboration, the speech cannot reasonably be construed as having conveyed any beliefs or stated any facts about gender identity.”
In addition to being wrong, this ruling is remarkable in its cowardice: If Meriwether had to address Bruening with feminine pronouns over the school’s loudspeaker, would he have a case? What if he had to do it on the local news? We didn’t realize that the First Amendment’s power was limited by the number of immediate observers.
In remarks to Campus Reform, Meriwether vowed to appeal the decision.
“I found the district court’s ruling both disappointing and troubling,” he said. “I make it a point to treat all my students with dignity and respect, and so I proposed multiple ways to accommodate this student that would not have required me to compromise my beliefs. I encourage my students to express their political and religious views, and professors should have the same freedom.
“But the University insisted that I endorse an ideology I do not believe is true,” he continued. “This is simply wrong. True tolerance must be a two-way street. Now the district court suggests that professors have no free speech rights, which should trouble us all.”
Yes, yes it should.