Can a professor use male pronouns and the title “sir” for a student who is a trans woman, because he claims his religion requires it and he has a right to Freedom of Speech under the United States Constitution, and that “forcing” him to use people’s pronouns violates his right to exercise his Presbyterian religion? Jordan Peterson first achieved notoriety by refusing to use the pronouns courtesy requires, and Nicholas K Meriwether, an otherwise unremarkable academic, sought to follow in his footsteps supported by an anti-LGBT+ hate group called “Alliance Defending Freedom”. He has failed at the US District court, and I hope that’s an end of it.
Meriwether questioned students during lectures, addressing them as “Sir”, “Ma’am”, or by the titles Mr or Miss and their surname. Treat a student as an adult, and they might behave like one. He addressed Jane Doe, a trans woman in his class, as “Sir”, and refused to address her as “Miss Doe”. So he differentiated her, by addressing her as “Doe”. According to Meriwether Jane Doe “became belligerent, circling around [plaintiff] and getting in his face in a threatening fashion” while telling plaintiff, “Then I guess this means I can call you a cunt”- but the evidence has not been heard in court, and Meriwether’s exaggerated whining about the complete impossibility of treating students the same or the claimed effects on him of the university’s response makes me doubt his credibility. The judge says at least one of Meriwether’s claims is “not entirely accurate”.
The university suggested Meriwether could address all students by their first name, or surname, but Meriwether refused. In August 2016 the university emailed all academics to require them to use students’ pronouns. On 9 January 2018 Meriwether called Jane Doe “Sir”. After repeated meetings and discussions, on 22 June 2018 the university gave Meriwether a written warning, which Meriwether claims unmanned him completely: he could not discuss gender identity, fearing dismissal, so he sought an injunction preventing the university from enforcing the discrimination policy on him.
The policy for reporting discrimination prohibits Negative or adverse treatment based on… gender identity, [where] the treatment denies or limits the individual’s ability to obtain the benefits of Shawnee State’s programs or activities. It defines gender identity as A person’s innermost concept of self as male or female or both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Calling Jane Doe “Doe” and all the other students Sir, Ma’am, Mr or Miss is plainly disrespectful and would make the class needlessly unpleasant for her.
Meriwether said he would respect Jane Doe’s gender identity if he could include a disclaimer in his syllabus that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity. He was teaching a political philosophy class, not otherwise relating to gender identity, and as his student I might find that disclaimer more offensive than his refusal to use a title for me.
The judge said any reasonable person would discern the difference between refusing to acknowledge the gender by which an individual student identifies and a discussion of substantive issues surrounding the topic of gender identity.
The judge found use of pronouns was speech, but not protected speech. He was addressing his student as part of his duties as an employee. He might have been entitled to state his beliefs about gender identity in class, but his refusal to call Miss Doe “Miss” did not by itself convey any belief, state facts or make arguments about gender identity. Even if people hearing knew that he did that to express his belief on gender identity rather than to insult Miss Doe for some other reason, the judge said he was not sharing ideas or inviting discussion but was directing his personal beliefs toward Doe, who objected to his speech, and other members of a captive audience who were not free to leave his class or decline to participate in class. The speech did not take place in the context or a broader discussion, and there was no admitted academic purpose or justification. In the speech of an employee the court distinguishes self-expression from the expression of ideas or opinions [which is] participation in the intellectual marketplace. So whenever law or rules protect us from discrimination, we can insist others use our pronouns.
Meriwether’s religious beliefs are repulsive. He believes in Hell for those who fail to declare faith in Jesus Christ- that’s eternal conscious torment for most people, imposed by a “loving” God. The chair of his department, of English and Humanities, expressed her revulsion. He claims his religious beliefs are extremely limiting: they constrain him from calling a trans woman “Miss”. I think his religious beliefs do not limit him at all. Rather they permit him to do what he likes, including insulting and bullying a student, and imagine he is acting morally. However, public authorities may enforce neutral and generally applicable rules and may do so even if they burden faith-based conduct in the process- including a rule to use preferred titles, or, say, a rule against bigamy though it affect some Mormons. Religious beliefs, even if sincerely held, don’t allow you to break any rule you choose.
God save us from what Neil Gorsuch might make of this case, but for the moment in the US our pronouns are safe. Meriwether v. Trustees of Shawnee State University may be found here.