Free speech or misgendering?

What happens when rights conflict?

KODAK Digital Still Camera
© Dave DuBay. Flagstaff, AZ

A Virginia teacher has been fired because he chose to refer to a transgender student by the student’s preferred name while avoiding any gender pronouns. The school said Peter Vlaming must use pronouns.

While most media outlets reported the story as the teacher’s refusal to use pronouns, The Hill called it “misgendering.” But there’s no evidence that Vlaming has used feminine pronouns or the student’s “deadname” after the student came out as a transgender boy.

While Vlaming cites religious freedom, free speech is also at issue. Public schools are government run institutions and are bound by the first amendment.

It’s clear that government employees, or those employed by government funded agencies, can be prohibited from saying certain things. Harassment and verbal abuse are two examples. But whether someone can be forced to say something against their will—compelled speech—or be fired is an issue the courts must decide.

I’ve been critical of psychologist Jordan Peterson, who rose to fame alleging that Canada’s transgender rights law would result in compelled speech. And while I stand by my disdain for his absurd comparison of transgender activism to communism’s 100 million deaths in the twentieth century, social justice activists are proving Peterson’s concerns about compelled speech correct.

An essential point classical liberals make about advocacy for your equal rights is the reciprocal responsibility to respect other people’s equal rights. Vlaming’s choice to use the transgender student’s preferred name while avoiding both female and male pronouns is a reasonable compromise. But coercing people to using pronouns they don’t agree with—or lose their jobs—is an unreasonable violation of their human rights.

In other words, the equal rights of both parties are respected when we draw the line by saying that employees cannot use pronouns against a person’s request, but that person cannot force you to use pronouns that you don’t want to use.

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