Last week Shawnee State University philosophy Professor Nicholas Meriwether won the right to proceed with his federal First Amendment lawsuit filed against his employer.

The case started after the University punished Meriwether for addressing a transsexual woman as ‘Mr.’ when she demanded to be called ‘Ms.’

Professor Meriwether sued over his punishment on the grounds that the school violated his First Amendment rights.

Inside Higher Ed explains how we got here:

The university initially asked to Meriwether to stop using masculine and feminine titles and gendered pronouns, but he argued this was next to impossible. Instead, he said he would refer to the student in question by her last name only. The student was dissatisfied with this approach, as Meriwether continued to address other students as “Ms.” and “Mr.” Meriwether also called the student “Mr.” again in front of the class by accident, he says.

The student allegedly threatened to sue Shawnee State, which in turn pressured Meriwether further to address the student in her preferred manner. Meriwether agreed — on the condition that he could put a disclaimer in his syllabus about how he was following the university’s pronoun policy under compulsion, and stating his views about biological sex and gender being one and the same and immutable.

Meriwether’s dean rejected this as incompatible with the university’s gender identity policy. The case was referred to the university’s office for compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. Meriwether, who continued to refer to the student by her last name only, was found to have created a “hostile environment” for her via disparate treatment. (Again, he continued to call other students “Mr.” and “Ms.”)

Meriwether argued against this finding, saying that the student received high marks in the course, and that he didn’t treat her substantially differently from any other student. “Reasonable minds” could differ about this “newly emerging cultural issue,” he said in a letter to his provost.

Unswayed, the provost put a warning letter in Meriwether’s personnel file, telling him to follow the pronoun policy to “avoid further corrective actions.”

Meriwether’s faculty union unsuccessfully appealed the disciplinary action on his behalf before he sued the university.

A district court previously dismissed the professor’s First Amendment case against Shawnee State, saying that the university didn’t violate his rights. Getting students’ pronouns and titles right is a narrow issue that is part of a professor’s job description, not a matter of free speech, that court found.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision, explaining in its opinion that while the lower court “held that a professor’s speech in the classroom is never protected by the First Amendment … we disagree.”

Weighing in on the campus speech debate, the appeals court said that American universities traditionally have been “beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom” and “forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated. And they have tried not to stifle debate by picking sides.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s precedent, cited in the Sixth Circuit ruling is that “the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors.”

You don’t have to be a doctor of law, linguistics, or philosophy to understand why that’s important.

But our issue in the pronoun wars has nothing to do with free speech, labor law, or evolving gender science. For us, it’s entirely an issue of concise communication.

As explained by the Hamilton College writing center:

A pronoun must agree in gender and number with its antecedent. A common error is the use of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular noun.

An example is something like this:

He didn’t want to offend anyone.

However, if ‘he’ is biologically male, but doesn’t feel like a male, the appropriate gender-neutral pronoun becomes “they,” as in:

They didn’t want to offend anyone.

To us, that loosely translates to multiple people.

We sincerely don’t want to offend anyone and will happily oblige an individual his, her or their preference in conversation. But bending pronoun rules makes for confusing, ambiguous, and imprecise writing… which can create real problems in the newspaper business where accuracy is job one.


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