Amicus Briefs Urge Full Sixth Circuit to Reconsider Panel Decision Holding That University Cannot Enforce Policy Requiring Professors to Treat Transgender Students Respectfully

Last Friday, medical professionals, suicide prevention groups, and more than 100 law professors filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the entire Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear its decision in Meriwether v. Shawnee State University. In that ruling, a 3-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit held that the First Amendment allows university professors to violate university policies requiring equal and respectful treatment of transgender students.

The case arose when philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether refused to use female honorifics when referring to NCLR client Jane Doe, a transgender woman, in class. The university determined that Meriwether’s refusal to address Jane the same way he addressed other students in class violated its anti-discrimination policy and placed a discipline letter in his personnel file.

Meriwether sued the university claiming that the disciplinary action infringed on his First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion.  On February 12, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio dismissed Meriwether’s complaint. On March 26, 2021, a panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed that decision, holding Meriwether had a viable claim that the university’s discipline violated the First Amendment. Shawnee and Jane Doe then asked the full Sixth Circuit to rehear the case.

In a brief filed on Friday, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, and National Association of Social Workers urged the court to reconsider the panel decision in light of empirical research supporting policies such as Shawnee’s.  “Numerous studies have found that the simple act of referring to transgender students respectfully with names and pronouns that affirm their gender identities can significantly improve mental health outcomes and may reduce the risk of suicide,” the medical groups wrote.

According to the brief, “institutions such as Shawnee State University should be supported, not penalized, for adopting policies that require professors to foster an inclusive environment for transgender students, including ensuring that students are called by names and pronouns that affirm their gender identities.”

A brief filed by The Trevor Project and the American Association of Suicidology also pointed to the importance of Shawnee’s policy to the health and wellbeing of students: “Young transgender adults subjected to the use of incorrect pronouns in the classroom are at risk of harm to their mental health, including an increased risk of suicide.”

As the brief describes, a 2020 study of more than 40,000 LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 found a dramatic correlation between respectful treatment of transgender youth with respect to names and pronouns and reduced suicidality: “Transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having [their] pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected.”

A group of more than 100 law professors urged the court to reconsider the panel’s decision because it “stretches academic freedom to the point that it would disrupt education itself.” The professors explained that the panel decision will lead to “a breakdown in the atmosphere of collegiality and mutual respect that is fundamental to—indeed, makes possible—the robust exchange of ideas that makes university classrooms such special places within our democracy.”

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