Free Speech

Pronouns in the University Classroom & the First Amendment

A federal appellate court lets a professor's First Amendment claim go forward, in an opinion that powerfully protects faculty academic freedom more broadly.


The case is today's Sixth Circuit decision in Meriwether v. Hartop, written by Judge Amul Thapar and joined by Judges David McKeague and Joan Larsen. There are a lot of moving parts here, so let me go through them one by one.

[A.] First, the facts: Shawnee State University had a policy requiring that students "refer to students by their 'preferred pronoun[s].'" Prof. Nicholas Meriwether disagreed, and "proposed a compromise: He would keep using pronouns to address most students in class but would refer to Doe [a transgender student in his class] using only Doe's last name." The University at first agreed, but then changed its mind.

The University also refused another proposed compromise that Meriwether offered: "allow him to use students' preferred pronouns but place a disclaimer in his syllabus 'noting that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity." The Dean "insisted that putting a disclaimer in the syllabus would itself violate the university's gender identity policy."

Meriwether sued, and the Sixth Circuit allowed his case to go forward; but because of the particular facts, the court did not decide whether a professor could insist on actually using a pronoun that didn't match the student's preferred pronoun. Rather, the court only considered whether a professor could decline to use the student's preferred pronoun.

[B.] Now, the background legal rule: Generally speaking the government may discipline (including firing) an employee based on the employee's speech if

  1. the speech is not said by the employee as part of the employee's job duties, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), or
  2. the speech is on a matter of purely private concern, Connick v. Myers (1983), or
  3. the damage caused by the speech to the efficiency of the government agency's operation outweighs the value of the speech to the employee and the public, Pickering v. Board of Ed. (1968).

This is quite different from the rules for criminal or civil liability for speech. Speech doesn't usually lose First Amendment protection, for instance, just because it's on a matter of purely private concern. Likewise, courts generally don't do case-by-case balancing of the value of speech against the harm that the speech causes. But when the government is acting as employer, it has a great deal of extra authority, especially over how its employees treat the government's clients and more generally over how they do their jobs.

[C.] But there have also been lots of cases that say that academic employment is different from other forms of employment, and this is what happened here.

[1.] The court followed earlier decisions by the Fourth and Ninth Circuit (and an implicit decision of the Fifth Circuit) in holding that the Garcetti no-protection-for-speech-within-job-duties doctrine doesn't apply to public university teaching:

[Garcetti] expressly declined to address whether its analysis would apply "to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching." See also Adams v. Trs. of the Univ. of N.C.-Wilmington (4th Cir. 2011) ("The plain language of Garcetti thus explicitly left open the question of whether its principles apply in the academic genre where issues of 'scholarship or teaching' are in play."). [And the Court's earlier decisions] have "long recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition." …

If professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as "comrades." That cannot be. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe" such orthodoxy….

Remember, too, that the university's position on titles and pronouns goes both ways. By defendants' logic, a university could likewise prohibit professors from addressing university students by their preferred gender pronouns—no matter the professors' own views. And it could even impose such a restriction while denying professors the ability to explain to students why they were doing so. But that's simply not the case. Without sufficient justification, the state cannot wield its authority to categorically silence dissenting viewpoints.

[T]he academic-freedom exception to Garcetti covers all classroom speech related to matters of public concern, whether that speech is germane to the contents of the lecture or not. The need for the free exchange of ideas in the college classroom is unlike that in other public workplace settings. And a professor's in-class speech to his students is anything but speech by an ordinary government employee.

Indeed, in the college classroom there are three critical interests at stake (all supporting robust speech protection): (1) the students' interest in receiving informed opinion, (2) the professor's right to disseminate his own opinion, and (3) the public's interest in exposing our future leaders to different viewpoints. Because the First Amendment "must always be applied 'in light of the special characteristics of the … environment' in the particular case," public universities do not have a license to act as classroom thought police. They cannot force professors to avoid controversial viewpoints altogether in deference to a state-mandated orthodoxy. Otherwise, our public universities could transform the next generation of leaders into "closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate." Thus, "what constitutes a matter of public concern and what raises academic freedom concerns is of essentially the same character."

Of course, some classroom speech falls outside the exception: A university might, for example, require teachers to call roll at the start of class, and that type of non-ideological ministerial task would not be protected by the First Amendment. Shawnee State says that the rule at issue is similarly ministerial.

But as we discuss below, titles and pronouns carry a message. The university recognizes that and wants its professors to use pronouns to communicate a message: People can have a gender identity inconsistent with their sex at birth. But Meriwether does not agree with that message, and he does not want to communicate it to his students. That's not a matter of classroom management; that's a matter of academic speech….

[2.] The court then held that the speech here was on a matter of "public concern":

When speech relates "to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community," it addresses a matter of public concern. Thus, a teacher's in-class speech about "race, gender, and power conflicts" addresses matters of public concern. A basketball coach using racial epithets to motivate his players does not. "The linchpin of the inquiry is, thus, for both public concern and academic freedom, the extent to which the speech advances an idea transcending personal interest or opinion which impacts our social and/or political lives."

Meriwether did just that in refusing to use gender-identity-based pronouns. And the "point of his speech" (or his refusal to speak in a particular manner) was to convey a message. Taken in context, his speech "concerns a struggle over the social control of language in a crucial debate about the nature and foundation, or indeed real existence, of the sexes. That is, his mode of address was the message. It reflected his conviction that one's sex cannot be changed, a topic which has been in the news on many occasions and "has become an issue of contentious political … debate." …

Never before have titles and pronouns been scrutinized as closely as they are today for their power to validate—or invalidate—someone's perceived sex or gender identity. Meriwether took a side in that debate. Through his continued refusal to address Doe as a woman, he advanced a viewpoint on gender identity. Meriwether's speech manifested his belief that "sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual's feelings or desires." The "focus," "point," "intent," and "communicative purpose" of the speech in question was a matter of public concern.

And even the university appears to think this pronoun debate is a hot issue. Otherwise, why would it forbid Meriwether from explaining his "personal and religious beliefs about gender identity" in his syllabus? No one contests that what Meriwether proposed to put in his syllabus involved a matter of public concern….

[3.] Finally, the court held that the Pickering balance tipped in favor of protection for Meriwether's speech, again because of the academic freedom context:

Start with Meriwether's interests. We begin with "the robust tradition of academic freedom in our nation's post-secondary schools." That tradition alone offers a strong reason to protect Professor Meriwether's speech. After all, academic freedom is "a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom." And the First Amendment interests are especially strong here because Meriwether's speech also relates to his core religious and philosophical beliefs. Finally, this case implicates an additional element: potentially compelled speech on a matter of public concern. And "[w]hen speech is compelled … additional damage is done."

Those interests are powerful. Here, the university refused even to permit Meriwether to comply with its pronoun mandate while expressing his personal convictions in a syllabus disclaimer. That ban is anathema to the principles underlying the First Amendment, as the "proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express 'the thought that we hate.'" Indeed, the premise that gender identity is an idea "embraced and advocated by increasing numbers of people is all the more reason to protect the First Amendment rights of those who wish to voice a different view."

And this is particularly true in the context of the college classroom, where students' interest in hearing even contrarian views is also at stake. "Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, [and] to gain new maturity and understanding."

On the other side of the ledger, Shawnee State argues that it has a compelling interest in stopping discrimination against transgender students. It relies on EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. (6th Cir. 2018) in support of this proposition. But Harris does not resolve this case. There, a panel of our court held that an employer violates Title VII when it takes an adverse employment action based on an employee's transgender status.

The panel did not hold—and indeed, consistent with the First Amendment, could not have held—that the government always has a compelling interest in regulating employees' speech on matters of public concern. Doing so would reduce Pickering to a shell. And it would allow universities to discipline professors, students, and staff any time their speech might cause offense. That is not the law. See Street v. New York (1969) ("[T]he public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers."). Purportedly neutral non-discrimination policies cannot be used to transform institutions of higher learning into "enclaves of totalitarianism."

Turning to the facts, the university's interest in punishing Meriwether's speech is comparatively weak. When the university demanded that Meriwether refer to Doe using female pronouns, Meriwether proposed a compromise: He would call on Doe using Doe's last name alone. That seemed like a win-win. Meriwether would not have to violate his religious beliefs, and Doe would not be referred to using pronouns Doe finds offensive. Thus, on the allegations in this complaint, it is hard to see how this would have "create[d] a hostile learning environment that ultimately thwarts the academic process."

It is telling that Dean Milliken at first approved this proposal. And when Meriwether employed this accommodation throughout the semester, Doe was an active participant in class and ultimately received a high grade.

As we stated in Hardy, "a school's interest in limiting a teacher's speech is not great when those public statements 'are neither shown nor can be presumed to have in any way either impeded the teacher's proper performance of his daily duties in the classroom or to have interfered with the regular operation of the schools generally.'" The mere "fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression." At this stage of the litigation, there is no suggestion that Meriwether's speech inhibited his duties in the classroom, hampered the operation of the school, or denied Doe any educational benefits. Without such a showing, the school's actions "mandate[] orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination," and ignore the fact that "[t]olerance is a two-way street." Thus, the Pickering balance strongly favors Meriwether.

Finally, Shawnee State and the intervenors argue that Title IX compels a contrary result. We disagree. Title IX prohibits "discrimination under any education program or activity" based on sex. The requirement "that the discrimination occur 'under any education program or activity' suggests that the behavior [must] be serious enough to have the systemic effect of denying the victim equal access to an educational program or activity."

But Meriwether's decision not to refer to Doe using feminine pronouns did not have any such effect. As we have already explained, there is no indication at this stage of the litigation that Meriwether's speech inhibited Doe's education or ability to succeed in the classroom. Bauer even admitted that Meriwether's conduct "was not so severe and pervasive that it created a hostile educational environment." Thus, Shawnee State's purported interest in complying with Title IX is not implicated by Meriwether's decision to refer to Doe by name rather than Doe's preferred pronouns.

[D.] The panel also allowed Meriwether's Free Exercise Clause to go forward, based on the allegations that "officials at Shawnee State exhibited hostility to his religious beliefs" and that "irregularities in the university's adjudication and investigation processes permit a plausible inference of non-neutrality." That part of the opinion also discussed an interesting factual twist:

[T]he university argues that Meriwether simply could have complied with the alternative it offered him: Don't use any pronouns or sex-based terms at all. This offer, the university says, would not violate Meriwether's religious beliefs. But such an offer has two problems. First, it would prohibit Meriwether from speaking in accordance with his belief that sex and gender are conclusively linked. And second, such a system would be impossible to comply with, especially in a class heavy on discussion and debate. No "Mr." or "Ms." No "yes sir" or "no ma'am." No "he said" or "she said." And when Meriwether slipped up, which he inevitably would (especially after using these titles for twenty-five years), he could face discipline. Our rights do not hinge on such a precarious balance.

The effect of this Hobson's Choice is that Meriwether must adhere to the university's orthodoxy (or face punishment). This is coercion, at the very least of the indirect sort. And we know the Free Exercise Clause protects against both direct and indirect coercion.

[E.] So there are several important conclusions and implications here, it seems to me:

  1. The case provides further support for the view that the First Amendment potentially protects public university professors' teaching decisions (at least in some situations).
  2. Under the court's reasoning, the First Amendment would even more clearly protect against liability imposed by the government as sovereign (e.g., through the civil liability system or through administrative fines)—for instance, in the New York City rules I discussed here—rather than just as employer.
  3. Much of the language in the opinion will also be used to support other kinds of academic freedom claims, for instance based on faculty research, faculty outside writing (from Tweets to blog posts to op-eds), and university student speech.
  4. But whether a university may forbid faculty members from referring to students using the pronoun that the student rejects remains an open question. This case only deals with faculty members declining to use the pronoun the student prefers, and using the student's name instead.