In Transgender Case, the Sixth Circuit Understood How the First Amendment Protects the Conditions Needed for a Good Education
What is the purpose of a classroom? For every teacher, each choice regarding selected readings, assignments, or teaching style answers this question. Each decision made is part of the teacher’s pursuit of an educational goal.
The question lies beneath the Sixth Circuit’s decision in Meriwether v. Hartop, handed down this month. On its surface, the case concerned a hot-button cultural issue. Shawnee State University disciplined philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether for violating its policy requiring employees to refer to students by their “preferred ‘pronoun[s].” Meriwether refused to do so in reference to a transgender student, citing his religious and philosophical beliefs 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.”
After Meriwether made several failed attempts to accommodate the student in line with his beliefs, he received a “written warning” in his file with the threat of more severe action for future infractions. Meriwether then sued, citing free speech, free exercise, and other claims of legal protection. A lower court had dismissed Meriwether’s suit. The Sixth Circuit judges unanimously reversed that court’s conclusions regarding free speech and free exercise while remanding the case for additional proceedings.
Based on the court’s instructions, Meriwether is highly likely to win future litigation. Judge Amar Thapar’s opinion ably stated why he should. Drawing on judicial precedents, Thapar noted the special place that college classrooms occupied within “our constitutional tradition.” A governmental employee usually would need to articulate the perspective of his or her boss – for example, a press secretary or spokesperson for a department or officeholder. However, a state university’s faculty requires expansive freedom of speech when engaging in “teaching” or “scholarship.” In defending this special need, Thapar described important means needed for classes to fulfill their purpose.
These free speech protections stemmed from what teachers must do to engage in the process of learning. Quoting Supreme Court precedent, Thapar wrote that “[t]eachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, [and] to gain new maturity and understanding.” This best occurred when there existed the possibility of a “robust exchange of ideas,” even controversial ones. That need existed in this case. Meriwether’s choice of pronouns involved a substantive comment on matters of public concern, like earlier feminist objections to using mankind in reference to all persons. We are engaged in fundamental discussions of how nature, psychology, and custom are involved in our understanding of human biology. As such, a state university requiring Meriwether’s use of pronouns would not only involve government compelling speech; it would also undermine important classroom requirements for learning.
The need to protect robust classroom discussion also pointed to a deeper purpose for education. Education involves learning – but learning what, exactly?
Some would reduce education merely to vocational training, in which the classroom prepares the student for a job. Under this view, Meriwether’s entire discipline of philosophy is a waste of time, regardless of his viewpoints.
But this view reduces education by making a part of it the whole of it. Education touches more than procuring a paycheck because human beings are more than workers. Students possess minds and hearts. Their lives involve beliefs and actions pertaining to family, citizenship, and many other matters. Education cultivates all of the person, helping to form them for lives well-spent.
Other observers reduce education to indoctrination. This perspective retains education as formation of the whole person – and thus maintains a place for philosophy courses. Yet it denies that the students possess reason, will, and their attendant freedoms. It instead seeks to enlist, if not draft, soldiers for causes. This approach stifles true, deep learning for cheap talking points.
Respect for truth and for other people requires the hard work of study. This study involves the capacity to articulate, refute, and persuade without fear. In doing so, we should treat our fellow learners with dignity, even when their views fundamentally diverge from our own. But this dignity does not conflict with the First Amendment. That wise portion of our Constitution protects what Professor Meriwether does in his classroom: the robust pursuit of truth for the cultivation of human beings and citizens.