A Victory Worth Celebrating

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 4/17

In January 2018, Dr. Nicholas Meriwether found himself facing a philosophical dilemma. A professor of philosophy at Shawnee State University, Dr. Meriwether was well-accustomed to thinking through philosophical questions, and he was known for encouraging students to think through both sides of the argument on any given issue. When confronted after class by a male student who identified as a transgender woman and insisted that he be referred to by female pronouns, Dr. Meriwether knew that his Christian beliefs obligated him to use language that reflected the student’s God-given sex rather than his chosen gender identity. 

Instead of indulging the student’s request, Dr. Meriwether offered a compromise: he would refer to the student by his chosen name and avoid the use of pronouns altogether. But that wasn’t enough for the student, who became aggressive and hurled expletives at Dr. Meriwether. The student told Dr. Meriwether that he would get him fired—and immediately filed a complaint with the university.

The student’s campaign was nearly successful. The university formally charged Dr. Meriwether for “creating a hostile environment” and issued a written warning that threatened “further corrective actions” if he did not start using the student’s chosen pronouns. 

At this point, you may wonder why I’m bringing this story up. Four years have passed since Dr. Meriwether’s encounter with the student, who has likely graduated by now (and has certainly left Dr. Meriwether’s classroom). 

Believe it or not, I actually have good news to share. After four long years battling with the university in court, Dr. Meriwether has at last reached a favorable settlement with Shawnee State University. The university has not only agreed to remove the discipline from Dr. Meriwether’s file and to pay him $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees—it has agreed that Dr. Meriwether has the right to “choose when to use, or avoid using, titles or pronouns when referring to or addressing students.” The settlement is a huge victory for Dr. Meriwether, for his legal team at the Alliance Defending Freedom, and for free speech as a whole.

The settlement follows the Sixth Circuit Court’s decision in March 2021, which reversed the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case. The decision declared: “If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as ‘comrades.’ That cannot be.” 

The National Association of Scholars agrees wholeheartedly with the Sixth Circuit Court’s statement in defense of academic freedom. As we stated in our amicus brief for the case: 

Higher education is, or ought to be, always open to debate, and those who wish to dispute the fundamental biological fact that humanity has now and has always had only two sexes are welcome to make their case. Likewise, those who dispute the essential complementarity of the sexes ought to have the freedom to argue whatever facts they can muster…

A university can hold the door wide open to those who are eager to declare such beliefs. But permitting individuals or groups to declare and advocate for those beliefs does not erase a university’s obligation to uphold the rights of others who stick with biological facts or standard usages. Nor does a willingness to entertain new “gender” theories dispose of the institutional obligation to respect and protect the teacher’s intellectual and academic freedom to speak in his own voice and according to his own understanding of anthropological realities. 

With top-down attempts to enforce progressive gender ideology on college campuses on the rise, it is encouraging to see our justice system uphold the rights of a professor who refuses to surrender to the new orthodoxy. Dr. Meriwether’s case shows that federal courts still provide a defense against universities that disregard the First Amendment. It’s a victory worth celebrating.

Until next week. 

P. S. The NAS Affiliate in Wisconsin has been up to quite a bit these past few months. Their recent membership drive increased membership by around 10%, and they are working on completing a website that will make it easier to see what their members are up to throughout Wisconsin. Next month, on May 5th, they will be hosting NAS President Peter Wood for a lecture titled “Conformity, Resentment, and Trivialization: Higher Education in the Age of Woke.” Anyone who is interested in attending the event can register online here

In addition to their work to grow their membership, the NAS Wisconsin Affiliate is keeping an eye on recent developments surrounding free speech at the University of Wisconsin. At the beginning of April, UW-Whitewater’s Interim Chancellor, James P. Henderson, chose to resign rather than implement a survey to UW students about their perceptions of free speech, viewpoint diversity, and self-censorship on campus. Needless to say, the resignation suggests that at least some members of the UW administration were not keen to hear what students think about the state of free speech (or the lack thereof) at UW. 

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Tstrickland, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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