In American public colleges and universities, faculty are supposed to be able to guide their students towards a better understanding of truth, reality, and the world around them freely and in accordance with their own convictions. But as part of its effort to redefine “sex” in Title IX, the Biden administration is seeking to compel faculty and administrators at public schools to speak and act in violation of their deeply held beliefs about gender and sexuality.
The First Amendment guarantees that all Americans, including those who teach at public schools, have the right to speak and act in accordance with their deeply held beliefs—even if those beliefs are offensive to someone else. If the Biden administration gets its way, that right to freedom of speech will be in grave danger.
The administration is trying to change the definition of “sex” in Title IX to include “gender identity”—a seemingly small change. In practice, however, this change would compel professors, teachers, and administrators at public schools and universities to address and treat students based on students’ self-identified “gender identity,” whether by addressing students by their “preferred pronouns” or verbally affirming the claims of gender identity ideology. Professors, teachers, and administrators would be required to do this, even if doing so goes against their deeply held beliefs. Dissent will not be tolerated.
There have already been attempts to compel professors to sacrifice their freedom of speech at the altar of gender identity. As philosophy professor Nicholas Meriwether learned, it does not matter how beloved a professor is or how dedicated and excellent he is at his job—that counts as nothing if he happens to believe something that the current powers-that-be don’t like.
Dr. Meriwether taught at Shawnee State University for years, consistently getting high praise from students for his rigorous instruction and kindly demeanor. He took care to cultivate an environment of care for learning and for each other by encouraging students to consider views different from their own. In 2018, however, that care and respect threatened to drive Dr. Meriwether out of a job. When a student demanded to be addressed by terms and pronouns inconsistent with the student’s biological sex, Dr. Meriwether declined, due to his deeply held beliefs about the nature of gender and sexuality.
Dr. Meriwether proposed a compromise: He told the student that he would be happy to address the student by any name, and that he would avoid using any pronouns altogether in reference to this student. But that was not enough. The university informed Dr. Meriwether that he would have to address the student using the student’s preferred pronouns and titles or purge his vocabulary of all pronouns for all students. Or, of course, he could lose his job.
Dr. Meriwether filed a lawsuit with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom. Though a federal district judge dismissed the case, ADF appealed, and in March 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in favor of Dr. Meriwether. The 6th Circuit said in its opinion that “if professors lacked free-speech protections when teaching, a university would wield alarming power to compel ideological conformity. A university president could require a pacifist to declare that war is just, a civil rights icon to condemn the Freedom Riders, a believer to deny the existence of God, or a Soviet émigré to address his students as ‘comrades.’ That cannot be.”
Dr. Meriwether won his case, securing a settlement of $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees from the university. But if the Biden administration changes Title IX in an effort to force professors all over the country to face the same situation, they would find themselves having to challenge a federal law.
And these situations will not be confined to the classroom. Right now, professors face serious consequences for expressing politically unpopular beliefs at all, whether in class, online, or even in the teachers’ lounge. Dr. Nathaniel Hiers found that out when he wrote a joke on a chalkboard in the faculty lounge at the University of North Texas criticizing the idea of “microaggressions.” Dr. Hiers, a math teacher at the university, noticed flyers in the math department’s faculty lounge purporting to educate faculty about microaggressions. Dr. Hiers wrote on the chalkboard, “Please don’t leave garbage lying around,” with an arrow pointing to the flyers—clearly a joke. But the following week, Dr. Hiers found out that the department head had canceled his contract, effectively firing him. The head admitted that the contract was canceled because Dr. Hiers criticized the flyers.
Maybe Dr. Hiers’ joke offended someone. But the reality is that the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans—including faculty at public schools—to express their opinions and beliefs without fear of government punishment, even if those views hurt someone else’s feelings.
Silencing and punishing faculty for holding unpopular views has a chilling effect on free speech in the public university system as a whole, and as a result, on the entire culture. If students see their faculty being censored and fired for expressing their beliefs, they will assume that no one really has freedom of speech, and they will carry that lesson with them into their careers after college. If the Biden administration makes these changes to Title IX, it will in effect be mandating that all faculty at public universities adhere to a certain, extreme view of gender and sexuality. That is precisely the kind of top-down ideological coercion Americans should resist.
Christiana Kiefer is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom.