Faculty Forum: What’s in a Name?

By Matthew Finkin

Can a teacher be required to address a student by the name or pronoun of the student’s choice? What if this conflicts with the instructor’s religious belief? With accepted usage?

This train of thought was launched by the opening lines of Rachel Hadas’s “In the Cloud,” in the May 24 New Yorker:

I made a list I can’t find now . . .
of words my students didn’t know.
Turmeric, poultice, fallacy,
cadence, meringue, Antigone

Next stop, Abraham Lincoln High School, Brooklyn, New York, Eng. Lit., 1957. The teacher called the roll: “Miss Schwartz. Miss Hermione Schwartz.” A voice: “It’s Her-me-ohn. That’s what I’m called at home.” The teacher: “My dear, your name is Her-my-oh-nee. You are named for the daughter of Helen and Menelaus. I don’t care what you’re called at home. In this class you’re Her-my-oh-nee.”

On to Cincinnati where sits a federal appeals court. It, too, confronted what a student should be called. A professor of philoso­phy at Shawnee State University in Ohio was a devout Christian. To him, God created two sexes separate and indissoluble. When he called on a student who appeared to him to be male by that pronoun, it became a federal case.

The student identified as female. The school required that students be addressed by their self-assigned gender identity. This the professor refused to do. Threatened with sanction, he sued, and won, in Meriwether v. Hartop (2021).

The court rested on two First Amendment principles. The general principle, announced by the Supreme Court in 1968, is that public employees enjoy First Amendment protection. They may address issues of public concern free of sanction. The professor’s choice of pronoun expressed his religious belief on a matter of public concern. He could not be sanctioned for it.

The specific principle was academic freedom, “freedom of teaching.” The choice of pronoun was in exercise of that freedom.

The court was wrong on both principles: one was misplaced, the other misunderstood.

In 1968, the Supreme Court emphasized that employee speech on the job differs from speech on the street. The state may not order the citizenry to “be nice.” The state may order its motor vehicle clerks to be nice to customers.

Religious expression is no dif­ferent. The state may not order a vehicle clerk not to proclaim “You’re doomed to hell” from a soapbox on the street. It can order her not to say that to a customer at the counter.

Control of the on-the-job speech poses a problem for profes­sors whose job it is to speak. In its decision in Meriwether, the court held that the First Amendment extends to a professor’s classroom speech. That has been contested terrain and the court got it right, but only partly, because it conflated academic freedom with free speech at large.

The court said that academic freedom protects classroom speech related to any matter of public concern “whether that speech is germane to the contents of the lecture or not.” That is wrong. Academic freedom protects profes­sionally grounded expression so long as the utterance is consistent with standards of disciplinary care and is germane to the course. Academic freedom does not license an instructor to give classroom expression to whatever her social, political, or religious beliefs might be. The lectern is not a pulpit.

The thought train stops at an experiment station: assume that Ms. Schwartz, now in Professor Hadas’s poetry course, has com­plained about the pronunciation of her name and that Professor Hadas has been ordered to accede to Ms. Schwartz’s preference. The order would violate academic freedom. The correct pronunciation of “Hermione” is no more subject to administrative than to religious dictate. Were this not so and were Professor Hadas to read “In the Cloud” to her class, she would be required to falsify her work thusly:

I made a list I can’t find now . . .
of words my students didn’t know.
Turmeric, poultice, fallacy,
cadence, meringue, An-ti-gohn . . .

Matthew Finkin is professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is coauthor, with Robert Post, of For the Com­mon Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to [email protected] for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not nec­essarily represent the policies of the AAUP.