The Threat of Compelled Speech to Free and Open Societies

CNN carried this headline today: “A public university in Ohio will pay a professor $400,000 after disciplining him for refusing to use a transgender student’s pronouns.” The case involves Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State, who objected to a 2016 policy requiring the use of a student’s pronouns to match gender identity. Meriwether argued the policy violated his religious beliefs, which are protected by the US Bill of Rights, and filed a lawsuit in 2018 against the university. Meriwether had attempted to compromise with the university, offering to use any name the student requested instead of titles and pronouns. In response, the school opened a Title IX investigation against the professor that concluded that Meriwether’s failure to use the desired pronounces created a “hostile environment.” The dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences recommended placing a formal warning in Meriwether’s personnel file. If Meriwether persisted in his refusal to use the desire pronouns, he could face suspension without pay or even termination.

Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.

Shawnee State has agreed to pay the professor 400 thousand dollars to compensate for the disciplinary action taken. The settlement means that Meriwether will not be required to use certain pronouns regardless of a student’s request. Rather than admit wrongdoing in settling the case, Shawnee State claimed that, since the lawsuit was filed, “it became clear that the case was being used to advance divisive social and political agendas at a cost to the university and its students.” The assumption in the university’s statement is that disagreement with a policy to compel an employee to speak in ways that violated his conscience represents a “divisive social and political agenda” that was costing the university, students, and the community. In fact, a policy compelling employees to violate conscience by speaking required words, a right protected by the First Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights (Meriwether also argued that his due process rights were violated) represents a socially divisive action pushed by a political agenda.

“As part of the settlement,” according to a release by Meriwether’s attorney, “the university has agreed that Meriwether has the right to choose when to use, or avoid using, titles or pronouns when referring to or addressing students.” The release clarifies that Meriwether will never be mandated to use pronouns, including if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex.” Shawnee State rationalizes the settlement as an “economic decision”: “Though we have decided to settle, we adamantly deny that anyone at Shawnee State deprived Dr. Meriwether of his free speech rights or his rights to freely exercise his religion.” The statement continues: “In this case, Shawnee State followed its policy and federal law that protects students or any individual from bigotry and discrimination. We continue to stand behind a student’s right to a discrimination-free learning environment as well as the rights of faculty, visitors, students and employees to freely express their ideas and beliefs.” With this settlement, the university is agreeing that the professor’s freedom of conscience is not a form of discrimination. Indeed, it isn’t. It may be bigotry, but so what? What constitutes bigotry in the contemporary sense of the word is entirely subjective.

Amir Vera of CNN writes, “The ruling comes as schools across the nation grapple with balancing the inclusivity of transgender students and the religious beliefs of some teachers.” Have you noticed how the word “inclusivity” is Orwellian speak for exclusivity? That, in order to promote “inclusion,” there are identities and opinions that must be disallowed? Have you noticed the trend that diversity of identity is used to suppress diversity of thought? Disciplining or punishing an employee for his identity and opinions necessarily transgresses the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of individuals to not only speak and be heard (given time and place restraints), but to not be compelled to speak in a way a public institution wishes him to, whether he is an employee, a student, or a visitor.


The attack on Meriwether’s right to his conscience is an attack on the liberal values of cognitive liberty and viewpoint diversity, which, along with personal autonomy and privacy, comprise the foundation of a free and open society. This attack is informed by the postmodern instantiation of critical theory, represented by critical race theory, queer theory, and other illiberal ideologies, which holds that transgressing prevailing social norms is necessary in order to liberate marginal groups from cultural, legal, and social structures of oppressive individualism. But it is the mark of an oppressive situation to see a man compelled to speak in ways he would not otherwise but for the threat of discipline and punishment. I delve deeply into this issue in my recent essay Science Politics at the University of Wisconsin—Deliberate Ignorance About the State of Cognitive Liberty and Viewpoint Diversity on College Campuses.

Shawnee State tried to compel Meriwether to speak in a manner that affirmed an ideology with which he disagrees. He refused and they punished him. It took four years for Meriwether to finally see the penalty rescinded and his fundamental rights to conscience and expression affirmed. The struggle to once and for all affirm these fundamental rights for all of us will take many more years. The illiberal force of identitarian politics is powerful and persistent and enjoys the backing of the corporate state. Resisting this force will take many more people standing on principle and defending the liberal foundation of a free and open society. The Enlightenment is at stake.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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