Three years ago, Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University who typically addresses students with an honorific and their last name, called one of his students “sir.” The student insisted he refer to her as a woman, which the professor refused. At that point, his misgendering became intentional.
Shawnee State investigated and rightfully concluded that Meriwether’s misgendering constituted a hostile environment. The university warned him to adhere to respectful terminology, prompting him to sue the school in federal court because his First Amendment rights were violated. The appellate court — one level below the Supreme Court — agreed.
Honorifics can play an important role in a classroom. Like Meriwether, I also address my students by their last name. The formality alerts students to the seriousness with which I take my teaching and their engagement in my classroom. Using the ancestral part of their name may also give students pause. It helps to mark the classroom’s sanctity as a place of learning. In my class, this formality may inspire students to step into their full professional selves, as lawyers-to-be.
As a law professor, I was taught with the Socratic method and follow its tradition, as does Meriwether. It empowers teachers to demand that students endure the discomfort of challenging ideas. We teach by provoking their confusion, deliberation and ultimately enlightenment. If the Meriwether case proves anything, it’s that gender, and how we refer to each other respectfully, is indeed a subject of academic debate.
But intentionally demeaning our students will not help untangle knotty concepts. For a professor to gender students as they see fit is about power, not ideas. True academic freedom does not mandate, much less permit, the disrespect of students. We professors can think and argue as we wish without undermining students’ self-esteem.
It’s a misuse of power for a professor to insist on calling students as they wish, without regard for the student’s identity. A professor who deliberately misgenders a student humiliates them, and we cannot pretend otherwise. Such disdain for a classmate’s self-esteem intimidates everyone, including cisgender students. This is hazing, not teaching. It pushes learning and curiosity out of the classroom.
The 6th Circuit’s ruling falls short on at least two fronts. First, it allows deliberate misgendering to masquerade as academic freedom. We can undo this shortsighted reasoning with little imagination. Any professor with a different understanding of gender could easily refer to students by their preferred honorific and engage in a considered debate over how to gender someone or on even gender’s role in political philosophy. I myself would sign up for such a class — especially with someone with whom I disagreed.
Second, the court argues that in forcing Meriwether to use his student’s preferred honorific, the school violated his religious beliefs. But this proves irrelevant. Just like it would be unacceptable for a professor to use the name “Roberts” for a student named “Rodriguez,” because it’s easier for them to say, it’s impermissible to misgender a student. Indeed, many would call it discrimination.
We must note that innocent misgendering happens all the time. I have misgendered students, and others have misgendered me. It’s not hard given that I see myself as non-binary, but most see me as a man who wears women’s clothes. In our current world of substantial gender transformation, mistakes are bound to happen. I choose to welcome mistakes — by others and my own — as opportunities to learn. My grandfather always taught me that even when one makes a costly mistake, it’s cheap if you learn from it. Deliberate misgendering occupies an entirely different position, where one seeks to erase the other’s identity.
In a world in which democracy has been threatened and social media jockeys try to blinder our students into their worldview, academic freedom feels ever more precarious and precious. The 6th Circuit is right to seek to protect it. Our society and our laws make plenty of room for mistakes, but there’s no room for deliberate misgendering to pass as a question of academic freedom.
We professors owe our students, and the learning we seek to inspire, more respect than that. Deliberately misgendering a student isn’t exercising academic freedom. It’s abusing academic power to undermine learning. It violates our core duties as professors as well as our moral responsibility to model respectful civil debate. We — and our legal system — must do better.