Magistrate recommends dismissal of evangelical prof.'s transgender pronoun lawsuit

Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. | (Photo: Screengrab/

A magistrate in Ohio has recommended that a federal judge dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of an evangelical professor who says he was disciplined for refusing to alter the way he addressed students just to accommodate a transgender student.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz recommended Thursday that the U.S. District Court of Southern Ohio grant the motion filed by the Shawnee State University board of trustees to dismiss a lawsuit brought by philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether.

Meriwether, who has worked at the school since 1996, was aided by his attorneys at the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in contending that the university violated his free speech rights by dictating how he should refer to students in his political philosophy class last year to avoid offending a trans-identified student. 

However, the magistrate reasoned that the professor’s First Amendment rights were not being restricted by the public university because Meriwether is a government employee. 

“Speech by a government employee is protected under the First Amendment only if the speech was made ‘as a citizen’ while addressing ‘a matter of public concern,’” Litkovitz’s recommendation filing reads. “A government employee’s speech is made ‘as a citizen’ and is protected under the First Amendment only when the speech is not ‘pursuant to [the employee’s] duties.'”

In response to Litkovitz’s recommendation, ADF plans to file an objection to the magistrate’s recommendation with the district court in which it will argue that Litkovitz “misinterpreted and misapplied the law.”

“Dr. Nicholas Meriwether remains committed to serving all students with respect, but he cannot express all messages or endorse all ideologies,” ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in a statement.  “When the university tried to force him to do this and then punished him for exercising his rights, it violated the First Amendment.”

Meriwether is a member of the Presbyterian Church of America and feels it would violate his religious beliefs to refer to a transgender student by biologically inaccurate pronouns and titles. 

As a professor, Meriwether has made it a habit to refer to his students by their proper titles like “mister” or “miss” followed by their last names when calling on them in class. 

In January 2018, a biologically male transgender student demanded that Meriwether use feminine pronouns when being called upon in class. When Meriwether did not instantly agree, the lawsuit alleges that the transgender student got belligerent and threatened to see to it that Meriwether is fired. 

After a complaint was raised with the school administration, a superior advised Meriwether to refer to all students by their last names and eliminate all sex-based references in class.

Meriwether objected to the superior's proposal and proposed a solution in which he would only refer to the transgender student by their last name while continuing to refer to other students with their proper titles and last names. Initially, Meriwether’s superior agreed to that arrangement. 

But on Jan. 25, Meriwether was told that the student didn’t like being the only one in the class called by only their last name with no title. The student threatened to file a Title IX lawsuit.

It was then that Meriwether was told that he would violate the university's nondiscrimination policy if he did not either begin calling the transgender student by the preferred title or simply refer to all students by their last names only.

Meriwether was told that he could face a suspension or possible dismissal if he did not change the way he addressed the transgender student in the class.

As the student continued to complain, Meriwether faced a Title IX investigation carried out by the university. In the summer of 2018, Meriwether was issued a formal warning and accused of creating a "hostile environment" for the student. The warning is reflected in Meriwether's personnel file.

The lawsuit seeks relief from what it calls a “University-mandated ideological message regarding gender-identity that he does not believe.” 

"This isn't just about a pronoun; this is about endorsing an ideology,” ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, told The Christian Post last year.

“The university favors certain beliefs, and it wants to force Dr. Meriwether to cry uncle and endorse them as well. That's neither legal nor constitutional, and neither was the process the university has used to get to this point. We are asking the court to order the university to respect Dr. Meriwether's freedoms.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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