A Christian professor who claims he was threatened with punishment by university officials in Ohio for refusing to use the preferred pronouns of a trans-identified student has secured the right to avoid using pronouns that conflict with his beliefs after years of litigation.
Shawnee State University philosophy professor Nick Meriwether reached a settlement with school officials Thursday in which the university agreed to pay $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees, according to his legal team at the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The settlement lifts any requirements for Meriwether to use preferred pronouns for students that may contradict their biological sex, according to ADF.
Additionally, the university has reportedly agreed to rescind a written warning issued to Meriwether in June 2018.
On Thursday, ADF attorneys filed a voluntary dismissal of the case.
“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,” ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in a statement.
“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.”
The university denies that Meriwether was mistreated, describing the settlement as “an economic decision.”
“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 university said in a statement.
“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. That cost is better spent on fulfilling Shawnee State’s mission of service to our students, families and community.”
In 2018, a biologically male trans-identified student filed a complaint against Meriwether when the professor referred to the student with masculine pronouns, even though the student identified as female.
The university concluded that Meriwether created a hostile class environment by refusing to use the student's preferred pronouns. School officials threatened the professor with punishment if he persisted.
Meriwether filed a lawsuit against the school in November 2018, arguing that his constitutionally-protected freedoms of speech and religion were being violated.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott, a Clinton appointee, dismissed the professor's case in February 2020 following the recommendation of Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz. Dlott concluded that his rights were not violated.
“Plaintiff has not alleged that defendants forced him to espouse or express a view that plaintiff disagreed with or found objectionable. Plaintiff does not claim that defendants mandated that he use any particular terms of speech to refer to Doe,” wrote Dlott.
“To the contrary, plaintiff acknowledges that defendants gave him the option to stop using gender-based titles during class, but plaintiff rejected that option.”
The judge wrote that the school's policies were interpreted as giving Shawnee State professors two choices on referring to students: "eliminate all sex-based titles and all pronouns when speaking to all students" or "use pronouns that refer to each student's gender identity."
Meriwether argued that the option to stop using all pronouns was "impossible, impractical, and unreasonable given the way professors speak, particularly in classes that feature significant and frequent class discussion."
In March 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in favor of Meriwether, reversing the earlier dismissal and remanding the case to the lower court.
Judge Amul Thapar, a Trump appointee, stated in the panel opinion that universities “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,” wrote Thapar.
“The district court dismissed the professor’s free-speech and free-exercise claims. We see things differently and reverse.”