Professor sues university for right to misgender his transgender students

A professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio has sued the school , claiming that administrators infringed upon his freedoms of speech and religion by requiring him to respect transgender students’ gender identities. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group , is helping the professor argue that he should be entitled to violate Shanee’s nondiscrimination policy, which enumerates protections on the basis of gender identity.

Philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether’s suit is a response to warning letter being placed in his personnel file this summer — discipline for repeatedly refusing to respect a transgender student in his class during the spring semester. He insists that he shouldn’t have to address students according to their gender identity because he believes that “gender is fixed” and “that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires.”

ADF makes clear early in the complaint that this is an attempt to completely disregard the legitimacy of transgender identities. They brazenly assert that “the concept of gender identity is entirely subjective and fluid,” that “the number of potential gender identities is infinite (with over one hundred different options currently available),” and that “the number of potential pronouns has likewise multiplied in recent years.” It further claims that “some sources say” a person’s gender identity can be “affected by mood swings” or “change depending on which friend you’re with.”

None of these fanciful arguments are relevant, however, to the complaints that led to Meriwether receiving a disciplinary letter.

The substance of the actual complaint involves one of Meriwether’s students, identified in the lawsuit as Alena Bruening, who objected to the way she was routinely addressed by Meriwether in class, including instances in which the professor seemed to go out of his way to be pointlessly and maliciously nettlesome, addressing Bruening as “Mr. Bruening” and responding “Yes, sir” during classroom interactions.

Bruening is consistently misgendered throughout the suit and described as “male,” despite identifying as transgender. After a class this past January, she requested being addressed with feminine titles and pronouns, but Meriwether rejected her request.

The complaint attempts to demonize Bruening for using profanity when objecting outside of class to Meriwether’s refusal to respect her identity, characterizing her as “belligerent.”

“Fearing that Bruening would behave belligerently or even violently in class, Dr. Meriwether asked a security guard if security personnel could be in the vicinity when his Political Philosophy class met again on January 11, 2018,” it states.

Both Bruening and Meriwether complained about their interaction, but Meriwether’s supervisors agreed that he was in violation of the school’s nondiscrimination policy by refusing to address her with female pronouns. Meriwether was very resistant to proposed accommodations to resolve the situation, for reasons the suit describes in length.

Meriwether, as it turns out, is very particular about how he communicates with students in his class. Deploying a formal Socratic method, Meriwether always addresses students using formal titles (Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss) and “sir” or “ma’am.” He believes this is an “important pedagogical tool” to foster “an atmosphere of seriousness and mutual respect.”

So when Dean Roberta Milliken suggested he call students by their last name without titles or other references to gender, he balked because that “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,” the complaint explains.

He agreed to make this accommodation for Bruening only, but Bruening was not satisfied being singled out in this way and threatened to file a Title IX complaint. According to an investigation that would later be conducted, Meriwether would use sentences like, “Bruening was correct in Bruening’s answer and so Bruening doesn’t have to answer the next question,” conspicuously avoiding the use of titles or pronouns. In the first week of February, he referred to her as “Mr. Bruening” yet again. She responded by going to speak with Tena Pierce, the university’s Title IX coordinator, warning she would contact a lawyer if her complaint were not resolved.

At this point, Meriwether offered another proposed accommodation. He would agree to call people by their “self-asserted gender identity” so long as he could place a disclaimer in his syllabus explaining that he was doing so “under compulsion” along with an explanation of “his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity.” Openly rejecting the validity of transgender identities, Milliken explained, would still run afoul of the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

Milliken had previously explained the expectations for respecting transgender students to the entire faculty back in 2016 after the Obama administration issued guidance interpreting Title IX’s sex protections as inclusive of transgender students.  Emails included with the lawsuit show that Meriwether balked even then at the mere hypothetical of having to respect a transgender student’s pronouns. Though the Trump administration has rescinded that guidance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which has precedence over Ohio, has interpreted Title IX in a similar fashion.

Despite singling out Bruening as the only student whose gender identity he didn’t respect, Meriwether asserts in the suit that she “was never denied any of the benefits” of his class.

An investigation by school officials disagreed, concluding that Meriwether’s “disparate treatment has created a hostile environment” for Bruening. The investigation, which is attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit, included interviews with two other transgender students, one of whom was facing the exact same conflict with Meriwether and ultimately transferred to another professor’s class to avoid the situation. The other trans student was in the process of changing their name but was afraid to tell Meriwether this because he had made his anti-LGBTQ views known in the classroom.

The investigation also recounts that Meriwether communicated on multiple occasions “that he does not recognize transgenderism — he specifically stated that he believes transgender is a lie and mental illness.” In one meeting, he “discussed the ‘wrongness’ of transgender people,” and accused Bruening of having “an agenda.” In another meeting, he claimed “that if he capitulated, it would lead to the corruption of the English language” — a stance that demonstrates a lack of scholarship in the subject . Meriwether has also claimed that being transgender is an “illness that caused corruptions and social problems, and that there is no scientific proof it exists.”

Milliken agreed with the investigation’s findings that Meriwether had created a hostile environment for Bruening and recommended punishing him with a written warning in his personnel file, which was issued in June.

The professor responded by filing a grievance through the faculty union and appealing it up to the university’s president. He insisted, for example, that because he taught philosophy and his beliefs about pronouns were part of his own philosophy, it was within his academic freedom to misgender his students. Not coincidentally, Meriwether’s RateMyProfessor profile includes several reviews from students who claim they felt he forced his conservative beliefs on the class.

He clarified that he does not believe transgender people are “lying” or “mentally ill,” as the investigation had found — just that they “sincerely believe something that is not true.” He insisted that he “should not be forced to affirm or contribute to this confusion in the way that I speak.”

Among his other complaints was that he was disciplined without just cause according to the standards laid out in the faculty union’s collective bargaining agreement. That agreement, however, precluded “personal conduct… that manifests severe or continuing harassment or discrimination.” According to Meriwether’s own bespoke interpretation, however, his actions did not constitute discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

His appeals were rejected at every turn. In his final rejection of Meriwether’s grievance, issued October 2, 2018, Interim President Jeffrey Bauer explained:

It is conceivable that SSU employs or may in the future employ faculty members with sincerely held religious beliefs that, e.g., one national origin is superior to another national origin, or one sex is inferior to the other sex. The University’s non-discrimination policy does not require such individuals to change their sincerely held beliefs or adopt different beliefs. The policy does require that employees, including faculty members, not single out in a negative way individuals whose traits they hold in lower regard because of religious beliefs.

In other words, the nondiscrimination policy does not treat gender identity any differently than race or sex, and religious beliefs do not justify violations of that policy with regards to any group.

ThinkProgress reached out to Bruening, but she declined to comment for this story.

ADF appears to hope that Meriwether’s case will be a vehicle for them to impose a double standard that justifies discrimination against transgender people that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated against other groups. ADF attorney Tyson Langhofer said in a statement , “This isn’t just about a pronoun; this is about endorsing an ideology.”

That is false. It’s about respecting people for who they are.


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