FIRE statement on Sixth Circuit’s decision in Meriwether v. Hartop

March 26, 2021

Today’s decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is a resounding victory for academic freedom and faculty speech rights. Last June, FIRE filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of neither party urging the Sixth Circuit to reach the exact result it reached today.

No matter one’s opinion of the expression at issue, the Sixth Circuit’s clarity provides valuable and necessary protection for academic freedom and faculty speech rights.

The case concerns a Shawnee State University professor who refused to call a transgender female student by her preferred pronouns during classroom instruction. The professor’s subsequent First Amendment lawsuit raised the question of the applicability of the 2006 Supreme Court ruling Garcetti v. Ceballos to public university faculty speech. In Garcetti, the Court held that public employees do not enjoy First Amendment protections when engaging in speech pursuant to their official duties, but reserved the question of whether that rule would apply to a public faculty member’s “speech related to scholarship or teaching.”

FIRE took no position on whether the faculty speech at issue here was related to scholarship and teaching. But we argued that if the Sixth Circuit determined that it was, then the court should “continue to recognize the special First Amendment value of academic freedom and follow the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits by holding that the Garcetti exception does not apply to speech related to scholarship or teaching in higher education.” 

Today, the Sixth Circuit did exactly as FIRE asked, holding that “professors at public universities retain First Amendment protections at least when engaged in core academic functions, such as teaching and scholarship.” The Sixth Circuit explicitly cited the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Circuit precedents FIRE urged it to follow. 

Stronger still, the court made clear that “the academic-freedom exception to Garcetti covers all classroom speech related to matters of public concern, whether that speech is germane to the contents of the lecture or not.” 

No matter one’s opinion of the expression at issue, the Sixth Circuit’s clarity provides valuable and necessary protection for academic freedom and faculty speech rights. FIRE will marshal today’s strong ruling in our ongoing defense of faculty from across the political and ideological spectrum, within the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction and nationwide. FIRE will also continue to urge all of the Circuits and the Supreme Court to make clear that faculty speech related to scholarship or teaching must receive the First Amendment’s protection.