SSU wants professor’s lawsuit dismissed

Published 8:16 am Thursday, January 10, 2019

Teacher disciplined for referring to transgender student as ‘sir’

PORTSMOUTH — Shawnee State University is asking a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether after disciplinary action was taken against him for referring to a transgender student as “sir,” when the student preferred to be referred to in female terms.

The university says that that referring to students by their preferred gender identity is part of the professor’s responsibilities and isn’t protected free speech.

Meriwether, who has taught at SSU since 1996, said to do so violates his Christian beliefs and that he refers to students as “sir” or “ma’am” because he “believes that this formal manner of addressing students helps them view the academic enterprise as a serious, weighty endeavor.”

Email newsletter signup

The incident in question happened in January 2018 when Meriwether kept referring to the student as “sir.” The student objected, and according to Meriwether’s suit, demanded to be referred to as a woman and became belligerent when he refused and threatened to get him fired.

Meriwether reported the incident to the dean of students.

Meriwether was asked to refer to students by their last names and, according to the suit, he refused because it would “undermine the serious pedagogical environment he seeks to create because that is the way people refer to one another in junior high or on an athletic team. It is not the way scholars, engaged in a serious, respectful enterprise, refer to one another.”

Meriwether has questioned SSU’s policy on not using gender descriptions since at least 2016 and was told that, while there is no written policy on it, SSU does have a non-discrimination policy that includes ‘gender identity.’

In April 2018, SSU began a formal investigation into the situation and found that Meriwether created a hostile environment because he kept referring to the student with a male identifier. In June, there was a disciplinary action and a letter of warning was placed in Meriwether’s file. He was asked to change the way he addresses transgender individuals to avoid further corrective actions.

Meriwether filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in November 2018.

The suit states the university “sought to silence Dr. Meriwether and punished him for expressing views that differ from its own orthodoxy and for declining to express its mandated ideological message. Continuing in their role as the self-appointed grammar police, Defendants threaten to punish him again if he continues to express his views.”

In his suit, Meriwether asks that the court enter a judgment against the university that the non-discrimination policies and related practices violate Meriwether’s rights under the First and/or Fourteenth Amendments, and grant a permanent injunction prohibiting SSU officials from enforcing non-discrimination policies to prevent him from expressing his views regarding gender identity or to punish him for expressing those views, including addressing and referring to students based on their biological sex, to purge Meriwether’s personnel file of any reference to the punishment they imposed on him for expressing his views regarding gender identity and reasonable attorneys’ fees, and other costs associated with the case.