In January of 2018, Professor Nicholas Meriwether of Shawnee State University was teaching his first Political Philosophy class of the semester. While replying to a question, Meriwether addressed one of his new students as “sir.” The student approached Meriwether after class, informed him that she was a woman, and asked to be addressed with feminine titles and pronouns only. This seemingly minor correction launched a flood of grievances and litigation. Meriwether insisted on continuing to misgender his student despite the university’s policy, introduced in 2016, that all professors must address students by their preferred names and pronouns or face disciplinary action. Throughout the semester, Meriwether addressed the student only by her last name, despite the fact that he habitually used titles for all of his cisgender students. The student was singled out for differential treatment, and her claim that this treatment created a hostile environment in violation of Title IX was affirmed by the school’s administration. Meriwether was subjected to formal disciplinary action—a single written warning.
In response to this warning, Meriwether filed a grievance against the university seeking to reverse the disciplinary action. This grievance was denied. Meriwether then chose to pursue the issue in court rather than commit to addressing his students by pronouns aligning with their gender identities. In March of 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision to dismiss all of Meriwether’s federal claims, theorizing that the academic freedom of professors under the First Amendment was impermissibly burdened by the university’s requirement that faculty address students in keeping with their stated gender identities. The court concluded that Meriwether’s interest in misgendering students outweighed the university’s interests in protecting students from disparate treatment on the basis of gender identity and in facilitating an effective learning environment.
This case is emblematic of a recent wave of media focus and court battles surrounding discrimination against transgender individuals. In July of 2021, the Third Appellate District of California decided that a law that prohibits staff at long-term care facilities from intentionally misgendering residents in their care constituted an infringement on the First Amendment rights of staff members. In this case and others, the willful use of incorrect names and pronouns for trans people is considered political speech on a matter of public concern and is therefore protected. These arguments view the identity and existence of transgender and nonbinary individuals as a topic open to debate rather than a fact, leaving the door open for targeted discrimination to be categorized as an essential expression of a recognized right.