The pronoun police are here. Federal agencies have issued proposals from every corner warning that misgendering someone, or even witnessing a misgendering, is cause for federal punishment.
What’s a truth-teller to do? Say 2 plus 2 equals 5, or get punished?
Fortunately, the Supreme Court of Virginia correctly said: Neither!
In December, the court ruled that high school French teacher Peter Vlaming could move forward with his lawsuit against West Point School Board, which fired Vlaming for not sufficiently adhering to the school’s preferred pronoun policy. Vlaming treated his student (a female who identified as a boy) courteously at all times, avoiding pronoun usage for his entire class. But it wasn’t enough. He had to affirm.
Vlaming asserts that the school board’s policy violated, among other things, his freedom of speech. He rooted his claim in Virginia’s constitution, which is considered “coextensive” with the U.S. Constitution, meaning we can learn how federal courts might interpret similar lawsuits from coast to coast.
The Virginia Supreme Court first recognized that we are dealing with the most onerous speech laws, called “compelled” speech. As the Supreme Court said in Janus v. AFSME, it is a “cardinal constitutional command” that government coercion, even when indirect, cannot constitutionally compel individuals to “mouth support” for political or ideological views they do not believe.
That’s for good reason. “The constitutional prohibition on government punishing protected speech relies heavily on the idea that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market of free thinking,” the Virginia Supreme Court explained. “Forcing creedal conformity is more pernicious than silencing dissent because the former seeks to monopolize the marketplace of ideas by making everyone in the market say the same thing about the same idea.”
In other words, the government devastates our search for truth by making everyone speak the same. If our government no longer serves truth, it no longer serves us.
The School Board argued that teachers do not speak on their own behalf but speak as mouthpieces of the Board, and therefore, the Board can control their speech. To be sure, the School Board can control the curriculum. It also can fire a teacher for screaming profanity at children or verbally disrupting the learning environment. But the Virginia Supreme Court again correctly said, “These concerns play no role as a counterbalance to a teacher’s right not to be compelled to give a verbal salute to an ideological view that violates his conscience and has nothing to do with the specific curricular topic being taught.”
Schools cannot extend the definition of the “curriculum” or a teacher’s official duties to cover every item on a political agenda.
The Virginia court also discussed the teacher’s freedom to exercise religion, including by recognizing biological sex. While certainly teachers and all Americans do have the right to practice their religion, including by honoring the categories of male and female, this should not be the main takeaway. The belief that there are two biological sexes (male and female) is not just religious belief. Nor is it simply a matter of opinion. It is a scientific fact. And Americans can speak about facts without the government coercing them into using politically correct language.
Whether the attempt comes from the president, a Virginia school board or any government body in between, this Virginia ruling should comfort us that freedom of speech is alive in this country as long as we continue to fight for it.