When Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in the 1820’s, he affirmed an intent to permit the free-flow of different ideas and perspectives. “This institution,” he wrote in a letter to William Roscoe, “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson fervently believed in the importance of persuasion and the unlimited exchange of ideas, whereby various perspectives would be offered and students would have the opportunity to debate and discuss those perspectives and arrive at their own conclusion. It was all about reason. So, why are universities attempting to not only squelch speech (see: the many debates about campus censorship) but to go even further – attempting to compel speech?
A case-in-point is Shawnee State University, located in Portsmouth, Ohio. There, philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether had been instructed to refer to a male-to-female transgender student as a woman, including both feminine titles and pronouns. Dr. Meriwether “did not immediately agree, [and] the student became aggressive, physically circling him, getting in his face, using expletives, and even threatening to get him fired. The student then filed a complaint with the university, which launched a formal investigation.”
To be clear: Rather than attempting to persuade Dr. Meriwether or to work with him to find a mutually agreeable solution, the student became aggressive and immediately decided to take the issue to the district administration.
This is a stunning turn of events for a professor who has been held in high regard by his students for fostering meaningful discourse. “You and I saw eye-to-eye on very little and that made those arguments all the more valuable to me,” one student wrote. “If you had only made a half-hearted attempt at a counterpoint or (far worse) neglected to even mention an opposing position in order to spare my feelings, you would have been fundamentally undermining my education.”
Dr. Meriwether refers to his students as “sir” or “ma’am,” as well as by titles like Mr. or Miss alongside their last name. A fervent Christian who believes God created men and women in his image, as two genders, Dr. Meriwether couldn’t address the transgender student by the pronouns and titles requested. As a compromise, he offered to use the student’s first or last name on its own. This would affirm the professor’s beliefs but also show respect to the student. His offer was rejected by both the student and university administration, and he was threatened with being fired.
Ultimately, Shawnee State formally charged Dr. Meriwether with discrimination and having “created a hostile environment.” He was written up and threatened with “further corrective actions” if he didn’t change course, leading ADF to file suit in November 2018 in the case of Meriwether v. The Trustees of Shawnee State University. The case was initially dismissed in federal court, but then the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in Dr. Meriwether’s favor in March 2021, affirming his rights under the Constitution’s First Amendment.
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 6th Circuit concluded.
Earlier this month, Dr. Meriwether and Shawnee State University settled his case, with Shawnee State University agreeing to provide $400,000 in damages and attorney’s fees. They also rescinded their June 2018 written warning and reaffirmed his free speech rights.
Unfortunately, Dr. Meriwether’s case is far from alone. Yet its outcome affirms a crucial fact.
As his ADF lawyers put it, “[N]obody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job.” The university now acknowledges 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.” Let’s hope other institutions of learning affirm this basic principle – one which aligns with Jefferson’s idea of the “illimitable freedom of the human mind.”