In January 2018, a student in Nicholas Meriwether's class, a trans woman, approached the Shawnee State University philosophy professor after he had referred to her as "sir" that day.
Meriwether taught Socratically, using students' last names and a title or honorific like sir or ma'am. The student told him to call her by female pronouns and honorifics.
The professor considers himself a devout Christian whose religious beliefs influence how he thinks about social issues and gender, according to court filings. He told the student he may not be able to adhere to the request.
Meriwether, administrators and the student tried to compromise on the issue, but the student eventually lodged a formal complaint. This led the university to warn Meriwether that it might punish him if he violated its nondiscrimination policy, including by potentially suspending him without pay or firing him.
In response, Meriwether sued later that year, alleging the Ohio public institution infringed on his free speech and religious rights. Now, after a federal appeals court ruled in Meriwether's favor and allowed the lawsuit to continue, Shawnee State is paying Meriwether $400,000 in damages and attorney fees to settle it. Under the settlement announced this month, Meriwether does not have to use pronouns, "including if a student requests pronouns that conflict with his or her biological sex," said Alliance for Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that represented him.
The case shows how debates concerning trans students' rights in higher education have intensified. And they could grow more heated with the impending release of the Biden administration's proposed regulation on Title IX, the federal law banning sex-based discrimination in education settings.
The rule reportedly will protect students from sexual harassment and violence based on their gender identity and sexual orientation, but critics say this goes beyond Title IX's scope.
The U.S. Department of Education did not provide a comment by publication Thursday.
Meriwether's lawsuit more directly concerns faculty free speech rights versus nondiscrimination policies. But it also exemplifies a potential conflict that could stem from a Title IX rule that bolsters LGBT protections.
A forthcoming rule
The U.S. Department of Education is due to release its draft Title IX rule this month but has scheduled meetings to discuss it through mid-May, which may suggest a delay.
It will dictate how colleges must examine and potentially punish sexual misconduct, replacing a regulation former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued, which took effect August 2020.
Little is known about the draft rule. But the Biden administration already determined Title IX covers sexual orientation and gender identity, drawing from a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County that found those are protected classes under federal employment law, Title VII.
The Trump administration had rejected this legal interpretation. In a January 2021 memo, issued shortly before Biden took office, the Trump Education Department said Title IX and Title VII are "very different … in many important respects," such as that the former allows for activities to be segregated by sex.
The agency argued the Bostock ruling did not apply to Title IX.
Federal involvement comes as trans issues have grown increasingly visible in the country. They have in recent years become more of a matter of public concern, said Jake Sapp, chief compliance officer and deputy Title IX coordinator at Austin College, who has studied the antidiscrimination law extensively.
Sapp pointed to a firestorm around Lia Thomas, a trans woman who swims for the University of Pennsylvania, winning a Division I national championship. Multiple politicians across the country weighed in on Thomas' participation, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, going so far as to sign a proclamation declaring the second place finisher had won the 500-yard freestyle, not Thomas.
"Earlier cases with trans student issues didn't rise to the national level," Sapp said. "Now it's a real hot-button issue."
Shawnee State's policies
Shawnee State had issued a policy in 2016 requiring faculty members to use pronouns that align with students' gender identity, according to court filings.
Though Meriwether raised concerns about the policy, his teaching was unaffected until his encounter with the student in 2018, who court documents only refer to as Jane Doe.
He reported his talk with the student to officials. Meriwether said to one dean that he would continue using pronouns with his other students, but only refer to Doe by her last name.
The dean later told Meriwether not calling the student by her pronouns would constitute a policy violation. The dean also turned down a suggestion from Meriwether that he use the pronouns students wanted but include a disclaimer on his syllabi proclaiming it was only to follow university rules.
The institution eventually started an investigation based on the complaint from the student, which was forwarded to Shawnee State's Title IX office.
Officials concluded Meriwether had created a hostile educational environment, then that the case was one of differential treatment, and issued him the warning.
Meriwether sued in 2018. A district court largely threw out the lawsuit in 2020, but a federal appeals court in March 2021 reversed the decision and allowed it to continue.
The Alliance for Defending Freedom announced the settlement last week.
"This case forced us to defend what used to be a common belief — that nobody should be forced to contradict their core beliefs just to keep their job," Travis Barham, the group's senior counsel, said in a statement.
Shawnee State said in a public statement the decision to settle the case was an economic one. It "adamantly" denied that Meriwether was deprived of free expression rights.
"Over the course of this lawsuit, 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 statement said. "That cost is better spent on fulfilling Shawnee State's mission of service to our students, families and community."
Situations like Meriwether's could be used as springboards to challenge the legality of the Biden administration's forthcoming Title IX rule, Sapp said.
"This type of case gives ammunition to attack the strongest protections of gender identity," Sapp said.
Republican policymakers have already threatened to sue over provisions in a new Title IX rule that protect trans student identities and ability to participate in sports that match their gender identity.
Fifteen GOP state attorneys general wrote to the Education Department this month, informing the agency that they will "take legal action to uphold Title IX's plain meaning and safeguard the integrity of women's sports."