A Victory for Free Speech and Religious Liberty
The school in this situation was in the wrong.
In short, Professor Meriwether mistakenly referred to one of his students who is a transwoman as “sir.” After class, the student (who is not identified) insisted that Professor Meriwether “refer to [her] as a woman” and “use feminine titles and pronouns.”1 Professor Meriwether replied that doing so would violate his sincerely held religious beliefs.2 After some back and forth with the university administration, the professor proposed that he refer to his student by their name and not use pronouns as an accommodation for his religious belief. The university administration ultimately refused the professor’s suggested accommodation.3
The university then disciplined the professor for not using feminine titles and pronouns when addressing and referring to the student. The professor responded by suing the university. The university administration has now settled with Professor Meriwether for $400,000, inclusive of damages and legal fees, and has agreed not to sanction him for pronoun use.
Read the full Sixth Circuit decision; it goes into great detail about the facts and events of the case. I will focus however on why the decision and the subsequent surrender of the administration of Shawnee State University is a victory for freedom of speech and religious liberty. Make no mistake, this is a good thing.
Before turning to the issues of free speech and religious liberty, we should note something important at the outset: Shawnee State University is a public university. This means that the First Amendment protects the employees and students at the university.4
Government employees, like a public university, retain many constitutional protections against their employers, like those in the First Amendment, that private employees do not. This is because the First Amendment protects free speech against government intrusion. You do not give up your rights as a citizen when you take a government job. I say “retain many” because, as the text of the case notes,5 a governmental employer can limit an employee’s freedom of speech in the workplace as it relates the ability of the employer to provide public services.6
The second thing to note is that Federal Law and often state law protects the free exercise of religion, including the right to be free of religion-based discrimination in the workplace. At its most basic, you cannot refuse to hire someone because of their religion.7 However, an employer, public or private, has to make reasonable accommodations for an employee’s religion. Consider a Christian who attends services on Sunday morning or an Orthodox Jew who observes the Shabbat. It would be reasonable for each to ask their employer not to be scheduled for work during the appropriate period - the Christian during the Sunday service and the Orthodox Jew from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Thus, an employer should agree to not schedule those employees at those times. Failure to offer these accommodations would constitute religious discrimination.8 Similarly, an employer cannot demand that a Muslim woman remove her hijab or that a Sikh man remove his dastar for work.9
And no, an employer cannot hide behind a facially neutral policy to refuse accommodations.10 An employer cannot say, “but we’re not discriminating against Muslims, because nobody is allowed to wear a hijab.” The courts would look at that and respond with “nice try, but no.” Saying “nobody can wear a hijab” is discriminatory against Muslims, because Muslims are the people who tend to wear hijabs. With the basics of the law in mind, let’s look at this specific case.
The Issue of Free Speech
There are two related issues here. The first is the right of Professor Meriwether to speak his mind on the issue of his religious beliefs with respect to sex and gender identity. Second, and more important, is the issue of compelled speech -should we allow the government compel Professor Meriwether to engage in speech that is contrary to his beliefs?
No doubt you already know where I am going to come down on these issues. I am a near-absolutist when it comes to free speech, and so I support the professor on the issue of his rights to speak freely and without compulsion whether or not I agree with what he has to say. You, my reader, may object that Professor Meriwether is a bigot who is promoting a bigoted worldview. “Why should bigots get to promote their worldview?” you might ask.
The right to free speech in general and the First Amendment in particular exists primarily to protect unpopular speech. This is because unpopular speech is the kind that needs protection. Yes, that includes bigots. The expression of this that I grew up with was “we don’t need the First Amendment to defend speech about America, mom, and apple pie.” The corollary expression was “if the show is offending you, turn it off; no one is forcing you to watch.” You have a right to speak your mind, but you don’t have a right to be not offended.
Professor Meriwether tells us that it is his religious view that ‘man’ should refer to biological men and ‘woman’ should refer to biological women.11 For the moment, let’s take him at his word and assume that he is speaking in good faith. Let us further assume that you disagree with him. Perhaps you think that he and his religion are at best behind the times and at worst hateful and bigoted.
Now ask yourself the following question: so what?
The two of you are free to disagree. In fact, you probably have no choice but to disagree. If you think the professor is bigoted, then he is probably not going to convert you to his way of thinking. Likewise, if the professor thinks pronouns referring to the biological sex of their referent is holy writ, you are probably not going to bring him around to your way of thinking. Put another way, your starting premises are so far apart, that meaningful discussion or debate between the two of you is impossible.
If you were to debate the professor, then your audience - the people y’all are trying to convince - are the people following the debate. The professor wants to promote his worldview and you want to promote yours. Have at it. That’s why we have free speech in the first place.
But maybe you want to censor the professor on the grounds that he is spewing “hate speech.” Luckily US law does not recognize"hate speech” as a legal category - and that is a good thing. This is because “hate speech” is in the eye of the beholder. Suppose you think the professor is a bigot, and you exercise your free speech to call him out. The professor might retort that you are engaging in hate speech by disparaging his religion, and so you should be censored. Also keep in mind that come 2025, President DeSanits will probably side with the professor on this point. As I have explained before, people who desire censorship make the mistake of thinking they and theirs will be the censor. If we stick with free speech, then you don’t have to worry about being censored when you and yours are out of power.
Your last bastion in this argument may be, “but I am in the right and the professor is in the wrong. That is why he is engaging in hate speech but I am not.” Except the professor will likely tell me the same thing, and add that a god is on his side. Why should I take your word over his?
My advice? Stop dreaming of censoring people you disagree with and put in the work to win the argument. Put in the work to convince people that your worldview is superior to the professor’s. Another consideration is that, even if you censor the professor, you have not actually convinced anyone that you are right. Rather, you have only raised the stakes for others to express disagreement. That will last only as long as you and yours remain in political power.
The Issue of Compelled Speech
The other side of this story is that the unnamed student in this case was trying to compel Professor Meriwether to say something which he does not believe. Compelled speech is pure evil - no one should have to affirm something that runs contrary to their conscience. This goes back to the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages requiring people to affirm their creed on pain of death. Let’s not go back to that.
The anonymous student should not be able to compel Professor Meriwether to use their preferred form of address, just as the professor should not be able to compel the student to refer to themselves with the professor’s preferred form of address.
I take the student at their word that they took affront at Professor Meriwether addressing them as a man. Doing so ran contrary to their identity and conception of themselves. But the student in turn did the same thing by insisting that Professor Meriwether use their preferred address. I take the professor at his word about his religious beliefs, and accept that his religious beliefs are integral to his identity. In the end, the student is saying that validating his identity is more important than validating the professor’s identity.
In short, for the student, this dispute is only about who gets to wear the jackboots. Nice.
Finally, we look at the issue of religious liberty. To begin, let us remember why religious liberty is important enough to be enshrined in the First Amendment. Since the beginning of the US, the founders wanted to avoid the sectarian strife between different sects of Christianity, not to mention Jews and Muslims. To get straight to the point, we do not want a country where Louisiana can declare Catholicism the state religion, can tax Protestants and Jews more heavily, and can exclude Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Religious liberty means you are free to practice your religion, but cannot force others to practice it.
Returning to the case of Professor Meriwether, he said that it was his religious duty to use pronouns and forms of address based on a person’s biological sex rather than their gender identity. Again, take him at his word. Compelling him to act contrary to his religious duty is preventing him from practicing his religion.
On the other hand, Professor Meriwether is not forcing his student to do anything. That is, the professor is not forcing his student to adopt pronouns and modes of address in line with the professor’s beliefs. Nor as far as we can tell, is he insisting that other students follow his (the professor’s) religious beliefs when referring to the student.
Thus, this is a clear case of Professor Meriwether following his religious beliefs without insisting that others do so. In fact, he even proposed a compromise whereby he would not have to violate his religious duty while not antagonizing his student.
Professor Meriwether offered the ideal compromise in this situation: he offered to address the unnamed student in a manner that would not include sex or gender. Thus, the professor would not be compelled to say things that violated his conscience, but would also not deny the student’s gender identity. Moreover, the professor could fulfill his religious duty without being obnoxious towards his student. In short, they can agree to disagree but still treat each other respectfully.
While I remain a near absolutist on the subject of free speech, I also live in a society with other people. Doing so peacefully requires that we cultivate the ability to interact with each other respectfully. This is often referred to as ‘politeness’ or more colloquially as ‘not being a dick’. Remember, just as you have the right to speak your mind, you also have a right and the power to treat fellow people with respect.
This is precisely what Professor Meriwether did in the situation. He acknowledge the disagreement. He did not insist that his identity and concerns take precedence over his student’s. Instead, he offered a solution to maintain the peace. His solution accepted that their disagreement could not be resolved, but offered a way to avoid pointless conflict.
On the other hand, we have the unnamed student who rejected this solution. They demanded that Professor Meriwether submit to their demands about how he addresses them. When the professor declined, the student called him a “cunt” and said that he would get the professor fired.12 In short, the student wanted the conflict. This was not about student being respected, this was about the student getting their way and compelling the professor’s speech. I think the student in this case was acting in bad faith.
If you have any doubt on this point, consider how you would react if the student offered to avoid gendered modes of address and the professor insisted on them.
One could respond that the professor’s solution merely papers over the problem. I think this is the wrong view to take. If we are going to live in a pluralistic society, especially one were the state minimally enforces any particular orthodoxy, then you are going to have people who have intractable disagreements on various issues. We will need to make accommodations so that these disagreements do not result in constant conflict.
The university had the good sense to settle this lawsuit on terms favorable to Professor Meriwether. My only complaint is that the $400,000 is too low to send a message that, yes, civil liberties are thing and you do not get to violate them no matter how good your intentions may be.
Meriwether v. Hartop, 992 F.3d 492, 499 [6th Cir., 2021]
Id. at 500.
Id. at 512-514.
Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 US 563 
Note that there is the ministerial exception. Basically you can discriminate when you are hiring someone who works in a strictly religious capacity. For example, a Catholic Church can refuse to hire a Muslim to be a priest, and a synagogue can refuse to hire a Catholic as a rabbi. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but this is the basic idea.
There will be exceptions of course. Imagine a small shop that is only open 10 am to 8 pm on Saturday and Sunday, and the owner can only afford to hire one cashier. In this case, it might not be a reasonable accommodation to allow an employee to regularly take off a large amount of the weekend for religious reasons.
EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. 575 U.S. 768 (2015).
See id.. Justice Thomas in dissent argued that a facially neutral rule is fine, but the majority of the court thankfully disagreed.
If you are reading this and saying to yourself “this is really just a semantic argument about the referent of the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’,” then I congratulate you on noticing that. I will return to this theme in a later essay.
Meriwether, 992 F.3d at 499. Someone should ask the student how that worked out.