Can the government force us to promote ideologies that we disagree with?
According to one federal court judge, the answer is “yes.” And that should scare anyone who values the freedoms of speech and conscience.
It’s clear that Shawnee State University doesn’t value those freedoms. The university punished one of its longtime professors, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, for declining to speak a message or endorse an ideology with which he disagrees. And a federal judge agreed, dismissing his lawsuit against the university. Dr. Meriwether is appealing this ruling with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom.
A Refusal to Compromise
Shawnee State officials have accused Dr. Meriwether of creating a “hostile environment”—but nothing could be further from the truth.
Dr. Meriwether strives to create an atmosphere of respect in his classroom by referring to his students using “sir” or “ma’am” and proper titles such as Mr. or Miss followed by their last name. So, when Dr. Meriwether responded to a male student’s question with “yes, sir,” he didn’t think anything of it.
After class, however, that male student approached Dr. Meriwether, informed him that he identified as transgender, and demanded that Dr. Meriwether refer to him as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. When Dr. Meriwether did not agree, the student became aggressive and threatening. Before walking away, the student promised to get Dr. Meriwether fired if he did not agree to the student’s demands.
As promised, the student filed a complaint with the university, which launched an investigation.
During the investigation, Dr. Meriwether offered a reasonable compromise: He would refer to the student by whatever name the student preferred. This meant he could respect the student’s wishes while also respecting his own conscience.
But that wasn’t good enough for Shawnee State officials. Instead, they demanded that he start referring to students using pronouns that reflect their self-asserted gender identity. That is, they demanded that a philosophy professor—whose calling is to search for truth—say something that is false.
When Dr. Meriwether declined to do this, Shawnee State officials formally punished him—claiming he “created a hostile environment.” Later, they placed a written warning in his personnel file that threatened “further corrective actions” if he did not refer to students by their self-asserted gender identity. They would not even let him put a “disclaimer” in his syllabus saying he was being compelled to do so against his beliefs.
That’s why Dr. Meriwether ultimately decided to file a lawsuit.
Centers of Education… or Indoctrination?
University officials have claimed that referring to a male student as a woman is simply a part of Dr. Meriwether’s job as a professor and that anything he says as part of his job as a professor is not protected by the First Amendment. Shockingly, the court agreed.
Is part of Dr. Meriwether’s job to endorse a viewpoint that violates his beliefs? And is it his job to shield students from encountering opposing viewpoints? And have professors suddenly been stripped of First Amendment protections?
No. Universities should exist to be a marketplace of ideas—a place where a variety of viewpoints can be discussed and debated in a respectful manner and where no one is punished for expressing their views. That’s exactly the type of environment that Dr. Meriwether works to foster.
And according to one of his former students, who reached out to him via email, Dr. Meriwether succeeds in doing just that:
Insulating students from intellectual scrutiny in the name of avoiding offense would be doing them a disservice. You and I saw eye-to-eye on very little and that made those arguments all the more valuable to me. If you had only made a half-hearted attempt at a counterpoint or (far worse) neglected to even mention an opposing position in order to spare my feelings, you would have been fundamentally undermining my education. I thank you for showing me enough respect to bring your "A-Game" to every in-class debate.
A university should be a place of education, not indoctrination. But Shawnee State doesn’t seem interested in teaching people how to think. It seems much more interested in teaching them what to think.