In a recent case with important implications for higher education institutions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a university professor plausibly pled claims that his employer’s enforcement of its policy requiring employees to refer to students by their preferred pronouns violated his constitutional rights under the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.
The case, Meriwether v. Hartop, involves plaintiff Meriwether, a professor at defendant Shawnee State University (a public university). Meriwether, a devout Christian, sought a compromise with the university that would involve him using students’ preferred pronouns while placing a disclaimer in his syllabus, “noting that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity.” This proposed accommodation for Meriwether’s sincerely held religious beliefs was rejected by the university, which argued that the syllabus disclaimer, itself, would violate the policy.
In response to complaints filed by a transgender student of Meriwether, the university’s Title IX office conducted an investigation which concluded that Meriwether’s treatment of the transgender student, including refusing to use the student’s preferred pronoun, created a “hostile environment” violating the university’s non-discrimination policy. The university placed a written warning in Meriwether’s file, and Meriwether then brought suit against the university.
Meriwether argued that the university’s actions violated his rights under both the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, and also asserted a due-process and equal-protection claims under the Fourteenth Amendment. His complaint was dismissed by an Ohio federal district court, and he appealed the decision, with the exception of the dismissal of the equal-protection claim, to the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit panel ruled that Meriwether’s case could proceed under both his free speech and free exercise claims.
With regard to the free speech claim, the Sixth Circuit panel ruled that the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors. In reaching this determination, the Sixth Circuit analyzed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006). In Garcetti, the Supreme Court held that, in normal circumstances, “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.” However, the Sixth Circuit held, in a decision consistent with the approach of the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits, that the ruling in Garcetti does not apply in the academic context of a public university. Accordingly, the university violated Meriwether’s First Amendment rights.
As to the free exercise claim, the Sixth Circuit concluded that the university’s policy was not applied neutrally to religion as demonstrated by university officials showing hostility toward Meriwether’s religious beliefs and request for religious accommodation. As a result, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the university violated Meriwether’s free exercise rights.
Finally, the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss Meriwether’s due process claim. Meriwether argued that the university’s policy violates due process because it is vague. However, the court found that Meriwether had notice of the policy and understood that it prohibited his conduct.
It is important to note that the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in this case only addressed the university’s motion to dismiss the complaint. Accordingly, for purposes of the appeal, Meriwether’s factual allegations were assumed to be true. He still has to prove his claims. However, the ruling does set important Sixth Circuit precedent affecting Michigan higher education institutions on issues of free speech and free exercise.
For any questions regarding this opinion, and how it may impact higher education institutions, please contact Ryan Kauffman.