Ohio University Pays $400,000 in Damages to Professor Who Refused to Use Student’s Preferred Pronouns

A professor won a major lawsuit for $400,000 against a public university in Ohio after he refused to use the preferred pronouns of a male student who identifies as female. In the court ruling, philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether will never be forced to use “preferred pronouns.”

Shawnee State University attempted to force Meriwether to use certain pronouns when addressing the student. Students say Meriwether addresses all students as either “sir” or “miss.” Professor Meriwether explained that his evangelical Christian beliefs require him to address people according to pronouns based on biological sex.

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He refuses to call biological females “sir” and biological males “miss.”

The lawsuit reads: “To accede to these demands would have required Dr. Meriwether to communicate views regarding gender identity that he does not hold, that he does not wish to communicate, and that would contradict (and force him to violate) his sincerely held Christian beliefs.”

The student reportedly began outraged and circled Meriwether threateningly while comparing the professor’s refusal to use the student’s preferred pronouns to someone calling him a “c***.”

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According to Heavy.com, the student complained twice to the university, prompting a Title IX investigation. Heavy.com also noted that Meriwether said he would address the student using the student’s last name.

Shawnee State University started a Title IX investigation, deciding Meriwether had violated the school anti-discrimination policy when he refused to call the student by the student’s preferred pronouns. The university issued a written rebuke.

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In February 2020, a lower court dismissed Meriwether’s lawsuit, writing “Plaintiff’s refusal to address a student in class in accordance with the student’s gender identity does not implicate broader societal concerns and the free speech clause of the First Amendment under the circumstances of this case.”

Further, the court said Meriwether hadn’t been forced to use speech with which he disagreed because he had been given the option to remove all gendered language from the classroom.

Meriwether had attempted to compromise. He said he called his students by either “Mr.” or “Ms.” and their last name. He offered to call the transgender student simply by their last name. The court said this was still discrimination and suggested Meriwether call all students by their last name. Meriwether refused, so the court concluded he had not been forced to express a view with which he disagreed and claimed pronouns and titles are not the same as expressing a belief.

But in March 2021, an appeals court revived Meriwether’s lawsuit and allowed it to continue.

“A district court previously dismissed Meriwether’s lawsuit for lack of standing. Friday’s decision by a three-judge panel from the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals revives the lawsuit and sends it back to a lower court where Meriwether can make his argument that his First Amendment rights of free speech and religion and his 14th Amendment right to due process were violated,” CNN reported at the time.

Meriwether and SSU have now settled the matter. Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Meriwether, released a statement saying that the university “agreed to pay $400,000 in damages and Meriwether’s attorneys’ fees. Additionally, considering the 6th Circuit’s ruling, the university is rescinding the written warning it issued Meriwether in June 2018.” Further, “the university has agreed that Meriwether has the right to choose when to use, or avoid using, titles or pronouns when referring to or addressing students. Significantly, the university agreed Meriwether will never be mandated to use pronouns, including if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex,” ADF noted.

“This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief—that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job,” ADF Senior Counsel Travis Barham said in the press release. “Dr. 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. 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.”