Last month, a conservative panel of judges on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the First Amendment grants professors a right to intentionally misgender trans students in class. The decision, authored by Donald Trump-nominee and Mitch McConnell protégé Amul Thapar, had a triumphant tone: Thapar depicted himself as a champion of free speech combatting the “classroom thought police” at modern universities who seek to turn their campuses into “enclaves of totalitarianism” by prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ students.
The facts tell a much more nuanced story than Thapar’s simplistic tale of academic freedom versus totalitarianism. The case centers on professor Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio. In 2018, Meriwether misgendered a trans student, known in litigation as Jane Doe, in class; she asked that he use her correct pronouns and honorifics in the future, but he refused. The university found Meriwether in violation of its nondiscrimination policy, which requires professors to use students’ preferred pronouns. Meriwether refused to comply with the policy, and following an investigation, the university placed a “written warning” in his file noting his noncompliance. The professor, backed by the viciously anti-trans law firm Alliance Defending Freedom, then sued—dragging Jane Doe into the center of a years-long legal dispute that she desperately wished to avoid.
I recently corresponded with Doe over email about the case, including its effect on her own freedom of expression and academic experience. We spoke on the condition that I use the pseudonym Jane Doe to preserve her privacy. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Joseph Stern: How did you feel when professor Meriwether first misgendered you?
Jane Doe: At first, I thought it was a mistake, either mix-up of words or a miscue based on my clothes or appearance. When it is the latter, it is particularly painful; it makes you feel ugly or that your body is broken. But, at the time, there was no way for professor Meriwether to know that I am transgender. All my documents and school records reflect my correct name and female gender marker.
The 6th Circuit wrote the following about your reaction to professor Meriwether’s refusal to acknowledge your gender identity because of his religious beliefs: “Doe became hostile—circling around Meriwether at first, and then approaching him in a threatening manner: ‘I guess this means I can call you a cunt.’ Doe promised that Meriwether would be fired if he did not give in to Doe’s demands.” Is this account accurate?
This account is only partially accurate. I approached professor Meriwether after the first class session to let him know that he mistakenly referred to me as male and ask that he refer to me as female in the future. He refused. I showed him my driver’s license to further prove that I am female. He refused again. It was degrading to have to debate with my professor whether I am female and entitled to the same treatment as my peers simply because professor Meriwether believed that I was transgender (it was not until I filed an internal complaint with Shawnee that I disclosed that I am transgender). Professor Meriwether’s persistent refusal to treat me with the same respect he afforded other students was upsetting. Although I made the remark quoted in the opinion, I was not threatening or hostile.
Did professor Meriwether’s actions interfere with your education or your broader experience at college?
Being discriminated against by professor Meriwether negatively affected my experience both in and out of class. Before the semester began, I was excited about Meriwether’s class, but quickly started dreading it. Because of professor Meriwether’s discriminatory treatment, I had to constantly worry about how he would refer to me each time I was called on in class and whether my peers would also start referring to me using male pronouns or otherwise mistreat me. I stopped wanting to participate but felt compelled to because class participation accounted for a significant portion of my grade. The stress from being in class was exhausting. Over the course of the semester, it became harder and harder to focus on classwork. To preserve my energy and attention for school, I stopped socializing with friends and withdrew from campus life. It was a difficult semester for me.
Do you think the court’s decision poses a threat to trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students’ right to equal education? Do you think it could chill these students’ own speech?
Yes to both. Trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students will not have an equal chance to learn if professors or other school personnel are permitted to discriminate against them. I don’t know any transgender students who feel comfortable taking Meriwether’s classes, which is a problem because some of the classes he teaches are graduation requirements. Now that the 6th Circuit has prevented the university from requiring professors to treat transgender students equally, I am concerned that other professors may adopt the same discriminatory practice as Meriwether. Certainly, there is no question that trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students will be deterred from taking classes with those professors, including Meriwether, and many will do all they can to stay silent and avoid being called on in class.
When you are being discriminated against by a professor, the professor is conveying that you and your presence in the class—including your opinions—do not matter. I would not have participated in class if I didn’t have to in order to do well in Meriwether’s class. Instead, I would have done anything to go unnoticed. And, if that can happen in the classroom, it can happen anywhere on campus.
The 6th Circuit held that the university had a fairly “weak” interest in enforcing its pronoun policy against Prof. Meriwether, while finding that the professor had a strong interest in misgendering you because pronouns constitute “matters of public concern.” What do you think of this analysis?
The pronouns and honorifics professor Meriwether used to refer to me in class are not a “matter of public concern.” The sole purpose of those pronouns and honorifics is to call on me to answer a question or refer to a comment that I made. To the extent those words could carry any other message, it was a message about me and improperly disclosed to my peers that I am transgender, private information I first shared with Meriwether as part of my Title IX complaint to Shawnee. Converting those words, and the meaning professor Meriwether believed those words conveyed, into a statement on “matters of public concern” gives professors and other school personnel an unrestricted license to discriminate against students on any number of bases from race to religion.
If you could explain to the 6th Circuit what, to your mind, they got wrong, what would you say?
Shawnee’s anti-discrimination policy seeks to ensure all students can access the education offered by Shawnee. Enforcing that policy does not inhibit speech on important issues being debated in society. I didn’t file a complaint with the school to stop Professor Meriwether from, hypothetically, dedicating a class session to a discussion of the transgender rights movement. I simply asked that he treat me with the same dignity and respect he affords all other students in his class. That would have allowed me to fully participate in class discussions on equal footing with my classmates, regardless of the topic of the discussion.
The discipline he received, which was very mild and essentially was just a direction to treat all his students equally when calling on them in class, was a direct result from his repeated refusal to extend that courtesy to me, not because he decided to teach about anything related to transgender people. Shawnee didn’t discipline him for his viewpoint or religious beliefs, but because he undermined my ability to learn in his class and deprived me of the college experience Shawnee offered.
I think it has gotten lost in a lot of coverage that it was Meriwether, not you, who filed this lawsuit. How does it feel to be thrust into this role, forced to have your rights disputed in a controversial case you did not initiate?
It doesn’t feel good. I am a private person and, generally, keep to myself and a small circle of friends and family. In fact, I tried to resolve this issue with Meriwether as quietly as possible by waiting until after class to speak with him and filed an internal Title IX complaint with Shawnee when he refused to stop discriminating against me. I did not want to be in the spotlight, but when he filed this lawsuit, he repeatedly—and unnecessarily—used my name, putting me at risk for being targeted for further harassment and discrimination, and physical violence. I actually moved to secure housing for safety reasons when the complaint was first filed. As uncomfortable as this has been, I also know that this is about more than me. I want the court to know my story and to understand the serious harm Meriwether caused.