Shawnee State University in southern Ohio (cross the bridge and you’re in Kentucky) is an open-admissions school that opened in 1986. It’s very little known, but the school’s administrators are as politically attuned to progressive sensibilities as any across the nation. A case that has arisen at Shawnee threatens to set a terrible precedent for the suppression of speech that any “woke” student claims to find harassing.
Nicholas Meriwether has been on the Shawnee faculty since 1996, teaching political science. He has risen to the rank of full professor with the equivalent of tenure. In a course on political philosophy he was teaching in 2018, he called upon an obviously male student and after the student (registered in class under the name Alena Breuning, but referred to as “Doe” in the court documents) replied, Meriwether said, “Yes, sir.” That’s all it took to set off a federal case.
Doe approached Meriwether after the class and told him that he was transgender and insisted upon being referred to with female titles and pronouns. “Miss” would be proper, not “Mister.” Meriwether was taken aback and replied that he didn’t think students could dictate to professors how to address them, at which point Doe became belligerent, declaring that Meriwether could either comply or be fired.
Doe complained to Shawnee administrators who, in turn, called Meriwether in for a meeting. They reminded him of the school’s “Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment Policy” instituted in 2016, which commits the university to prevent discrimination and eliminate any “hostile educational environment” it might cause. In the policy, discrimination is defined to include “any negative or adverse treatment based on gender identity which denies or limits the individual’s ability to obtain the benefits from university programs and activities.”
In the view of the administrators, using an unwanted form of address for a transgender student amounted to sexual discrimination. That the student didn’t like it was enough. Therefore, Meriwether suggested that he would continue to address all other students as he always had, but would refer to the complaining student merely as “Doe.” That placated the administrators, and Meriwether conducted the class for about two weeks in that manner. Doe was in class and participated as usual.
Soon, however, the conflict erupted again when Meriwether forgot and said, “Mr. Doe.” Even though he immediately corrected himself, the damage had been done. Doe again complained about Meriwether’s unequal treatment of students in class, saying that (s)he might hire a lawyer and bring a Title IX action against the university if something weren’t done about the professor.
Meriwether was then called to meet with Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Roberta Milliken, who informed him that “Every student needs to be treated the same. The policy seeks to ensure that what is done for one student is done for all to avoid issues of discrimination.” She furthermore informed him that the school viewed his disparate treatment of Doe as having created a “hostile environment.”
Meriwether asked her if he would be in compliance with the school’s policy if he were to 1) refer to all students “by their self-asserted gender identity” but also 2) include on his syllabi a disclaimer stating that he did so under compulsion and explaining his personal and religious beliefs about gender. Milliken told him that that would not be acceptable.
Shawnee began a formal investigation of Meriwether which culminated in June with a decision by the provost that he had violated university policy by continuing to address Doe differently than other students “based on a trait that is protected under our nondiscrimination policy.” A warning letter was then placed on Meriwether’s personnel folder stating that if “such behaviors” recur, he would face the possibility of further corrective action.
Professor Meriwether felt himself harmed by Shawnee’s action. Since that time, he has felt obliged to refrain from any discussion of issues relating to gender identity for fear of suspension or termination. Also, he says that the letter in his file could prevent him from obtaining any future academic position. Feeling that the university violated his rights, Meriwether brought a lawsuit against the university late in 2018, aided by Alliance Defending Freedom. He argued that the university violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments by punishing him for his speech in addressing students and his refusal to refer to Doe as a woman and thereby “lend credence to cultural ideas Dr. Meriwether does not share or wish to advance.”
The relief sought by the suit was a declaration that Shawnee’s discrimination policy as applied to Meriwether is illegal, that the administration desist from compelling him to use whatever forms of address students demand, to remove the letter from his file, nominal damages for the violation of his rights, and attorney’s fees.
How would Shawnee respond?
It might have made the case go away by pulling the letter and allowing Meriwether to keep referring to students as he thinks best, using gender-appropriate titles and pronouns for students who don’t mind that and last names for those who say they’re gender fluid. That was the approach that worked until he mistakenly called Doe “Mister” and set him off on his campaign to have Meriwether punished. It’s worth noting that Doe completed the course and received a high grade from the professor. Just how Meriwether created a hostile learning environment is difficult to discern.
But Shawnee did not choose to settle quietly. Instead, it lawyered up to protect its regulations and avoid any accommodation with Meriwether, against whom the record shows considerable animus by administrators on account of his religious beliefs. So the university has rung up hefty legal costs in fighting the suit.
The administration may think it is money well spent up to this point.
On September 5, 2019, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Litkovitz, to whom the case had been assigned, completely dismissed Meriwether’s complaint. (Her decision is here.) The crux of her ruling was that (citing a 1989 Sixth Circuit case), “Universities may sanction professors whose pedagogical attitudes and teaching methods do not conform to institutional standards.” Thus, First Amendment rights and academic freedom fall before the scythe of “institutional standards” shaped by the perceived need to satisfy the most aggressive “woke” students.
Then, on February 12, U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott upheld Judge Litkovitz’s dismissal of the case. Meriwether’s attorneys immediately appealed the dismissal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Sixth Circuit should decide that the lower court judges have misapplied the law, giving far too much weight to the university’s dubious “hostile environment” findings and far too little to the free speech issues involved. If it does so, and sends the case to trial, a jury might very well see the university as the aggressor here, much as the jury did in the Oberlin College case, and decide in favor of Meriwether.
No matter how the case eventually turns out, the events here tell us a lot about the state of American higher education in 2020. Administrators are in thrall to students who are zealots for “social justice” causes and will go to great lengths to put down anyone who displeases them. They find it easy to do so owing to vague law against “discrimination” and “harassment” that they can interpret as they please.
We have, in essence, a caste system in higher education, with “woke” students on top and tradition-minded faculty (particularly religious ones) on the bottom. They are the people who face a hostile environment.