The Forum | Academic Freedom

Appeals Court Reminds Shawnee State that the First Amendment Protects Faculty Speech

April 1, 2021 by Jonathan W. Pidluzny

Philosophy has always occupied a special place in the academy. That is probably because the word literally means “love of wisdom” and universities have long understood the creation and dissemination of knowledge to be central to their educational purpose. Students routinely leave campus with fond memories of the long and lively discussions—piqued by professors but continued with friends outside of the classroom—that are depicted in film and literature as emblematic of a collegiate education. 

So when administrators at Shawnee State University, a small public college in southern Ohio, disciplined a professor of philosophy for his speech, the academic world ought to have taken notice. Professor Nicholas Meriwether’s crime? He refused to comply with the demand of a student, known to the court as Doe, who insisted that Dr. Meriwether employ “feminine titles and pronouns” when addressing Doe (clear appearances to the contrary notwithstanding). The professor’s reticence was informed by his own deeply held religious beliefs. He did not use masculine pronouns in defiance of Doe’s stated preference; he simply refrained from using any when calling upon or referring to Doe. Doe finished the course with a strong record of participation and a high grade, so it is hard to argue that an educational opportunity was lost. In the end, though, the university disciplined Professor Meriwether as part of its effort to create a “safe educational experience for all students.”

It should not have taken the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to remind a public university that the speech protections in the First Amendment apply to it. Nor should it be necessary to tell academic deans and provosts that “Traditionally, American universities have been beacons of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. They have prided themselves on being forums where controversial ideas are discussed and debated.” And yet, that is how last week’s decision in Meriwether v. Hartop, et al.had to begin. The judge went on to explain that “Shawnee State chose a different route: It punished a professor for his speech on a hotly contested issue.”

Court documents chronicle a long and grueling on-campus saga that is disturbingly commonplace today. When Professor Meriwether refused an administrative directive to speak against his conscience, a student complaint set off a series of onerous investigations and disciplinary proceedings. He was reprimanded even though he made good faith efforts to forge compromise solutions and worked to treat the student with civility and respect.

The university, on the other hand, comes across as utterly unconcerned with Professor Meriwether’s religious convictions. The only alternative that administrators proposed to accommodate his faith commitment—that he refrain from using sex-based pronouns in the classroom altogether—demonstrates an alarming ambivalence to the educational environment. It is virtually impossible to have a wide-ranging conversation without using gender-specific pronouns, which is to say the “solution” would paralyze classroom discussion. That Shawnee State’s academic leadership ventured it speaks volumes about the school’s priorities, revealing them to be ideological, not pedagogic.

Unfortunately, the Shawnee State affair reflects a grim campus reality. The programs and policies emanating from diversity, equity, and inclusion offices are stifling debate and chilling speech at universities around the country. Today, a slip of the tongue can end (or seriously disrupt) an academic career. So can baseless complaints to a Title IX office. Or a politically motivated accusation submitted anonymously to a bias response team. Or a student comment on a faculty evaluation survey. Or the wrong question ventured in a public lecture. Or a bad attempt at a joke on social media. The list of cancelable offenses is a long one—and growing every week.

The stakes are high because what happened at Shawnee State changes the way teachers teach. What professor, aware that a slow-motion inquisition over pronoun use is unfolding across the quad (or two states over), would want to lead a discussion touching on, say, the science that informs our understanding of sex differences? Dozens of issues are effectively made off-limits in the present climate, unexamined by all but the most courageous faculty. The point is to confine classroom discussion to recitation of approved dogmas, which is to say that students are taught to memorize right opinions rather than to think.

Which brings us back to philosophic inquiry—once a hallmark experience of a collegiate education and even a core purpose of the academy. Professors of philosophy usually think of themselves as helping students to grapple with the perennial questions of justice, morality, nature, God, happiness, and the cosmos. Book Five of Plato’s Republic raises the question of sex differences directly, with Socrates and his interlocuters asking what can be attributed to nature and what to convention. In ancient Athens, Socrates and his male companions could dare to ask whether justice requires that women train for war (naked) alongside men. They were even cognizant that it would require a universal, state-run daycare system.

We still read the Great Books so many centuries later because they assist us in wide-ranging reflection on the most difficult and important questions, a kind of hunt for truth that sharpens the intellect and builds capacity for rational analysis. Engaging with the history of ideas also broadens a student’s perspective and deepens his or her appreciation for difference. That can help foster a productive critical attitude by equipping students to assess their own ideas, political system, and assumptions in light of alternatives across time and geography. To ask whether and why other ways and customs might be better or worse—for individuals and/or the community—is to provoke and inform profound reflection on questions of ethics and morality.

It is past time to welcome that kind of thinking back to college campuses. The court’s decision last week in Meriwether v. Hartop, et al. is an important victory for academic freedom and the open deliberation that depends on it, one that state-funded universities around the country would do well to note. For in holding that “professors at public universities retain First Amendment protections at least when engaged in core academic functions, such as teaching and scholarship,” the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals joins three others: the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth.

It is also an important victory for our national marketplace of ideas. Citing a landmark Supreme Court case, Keyishian v. Bd. of Regents, the appeals court reminded us that “when the state stifles a professor’s viewpoint on a matter of public import, much more than the professor’s rights are at stake. Our nation’s future ‘depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to [the] robust exchange of ideas.’” For most of the last century, the American university has been a driver of debate, fostering the kind of reasoned deliberation that has enriched our public discourse. The reverse is true today. It routinely takes off-campus actors—alumni, the courts, executive branch regulations, viewpoint diversity legislation, or the intervention of major donors—to force public colleges and universities to permit free and open discourse within their walls.

Jonathan W. Pidluzny, Ph.D., is vice president of academic affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni


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