No, but many conservatives think it does.
In April, 2022, a Wisconsin school district opened a federal Title IX sexual harassment investigation into three middle school boys for allegedly refusing to use the pronoun they in reference to a nonbinary classmate, a violation of district guidelines. Defending the students, lawyers for the right-leaning Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty warned that requiring ‘they/them’ pronouns violates the boys’ First Amendment protection against compelled speech by forcing them to go against their deeply-held belief that both grammar and gender are immutable.
Op-eds ridiculing the Wisconsin “pronoun police” quickly followed, with ominous headlines like “When the Pronoun Police Come for Eighth Graders.”
But policing language, not just pronouns but all aspects of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation, has always been a major function of American schools, so if forcing students to use a pronoun is unconstitutional, then so is making them memorize poems, pass vocabulary tests, or write essays in standard English.
Three other pronoun cases made headlines in April and May. In one, a Kansas judge ruled that forcing a teacher to use a student’s pronouns violates the teacher’s freedom of religion. The second announced a settlement in a pronoun case. Philosophy professor Nicholas K. Meriwether sued Shawnee State University for censoring him when he refused to say a trans student’s pronoun. In 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his suit could proceed because there were reasonable grounds that the school’s pronoun mandate violated the First Amendment’s protection against compelled speech as well as its guarantee of religious freedom. This April, the university agreed to pay Meriwether $400,000 and permit him to address students any way he liked. According to the agreement, he will “never be required to use a . . . pronoun at all.” In the third case, still to be resolved, a French teacher in Virginia, fired for refusing to use a trans student’s pronouns, sued the school, claiming that its pronoun mandate violated his religious freedom. Virginia’s Solicitor General filed an amicus brief supporting the teacher.
The right has been weaponizing the First Amendment to shut down speech about race, slavery, evolution, and colonialism, arguing that saying anything vaguely progressive prevents conservative students from exercising their right to speak. Now they’re silencing discussions of gender by attacking a part of speech. In 2020, Justice Samuel Alito set the stage for putting pronouns at the center of the culture wars by arguing in his dissent in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, that laws and regulations requiring teachers, students, and employees to use gender pronouns like singular they or coined nonbinary pronouns like e, xe, and hir violate the Constitution’s freedom of speech guarantee. In essence Alito proclaimed, “You can’t make me say your pronouns.”
It’s not clear what prompted Alito’s pronoun attack, as Bostock had nothing to do with grammar. The 6–3 decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, held that “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII,” of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting employment “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Granted, speech codes mandating inclusive language or prohibiting hate speech generally don’t do well in constitutional challenges. But policing pronouns is nothing new for schools, and until now, it’s been a practice that parents supported. There’s little backlash when teachers try to eradicate common pronoun “errors” like “Her and me went to the store.” Or when teachers mandated generic he for much of the twentieth century. No one raised constitutional objections when, in the 1970s, with the generic masculine in decline, teachers began requiring students to use the gender-neutral pronoun pair, he or she.
There’s the common schoolroom policing of pronoun agreement, stamping out instances of he were or we was. And long before singular they became an issue, there was the thorny matter of plural you ousting singular thou. For 1,200 years, you, ye, and your were the second person plurals, and thou/thee/thy were the singular forms. That changed over the course of the seventeenth century, when you began to serve as both singular and plural in more and more contexts. It also doubled as both subject and object, while the older object form, ye, became obsolete. So much for the argument that grammar is immutable.
But schools were slow to adapt to the pronoun change. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, teachers marked students down for using singular you instead of thou, despite the fact that thou/thee/thy pronouns had long since disappeared from formal speech and writing (the singular th- pronouns survive today in some British spoken dialects). Since most grammar books at the time insisted that thou was the second person singular, that’s what schools required, even though students and their teachers regularly used you. The schools were in the wrong. Some called the schools “old fashioned,” but no one took them to court.
In addition, the they/them pronouns that caused such a stir in Wisconsin aren’t new or “woke” or even ungrammatical. Singular they has been a feature of English, not a bug, since the fourteenth century. It’s older than singular you and has appeared regularly in the edited, published prose of respected writers, even during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when usage critics were condemning singular they as ungrammatical. That’s because most people considered singular they a minor infraction that offered the best way to refer to someone whose gender was unknown or irrelevant, or whose gender needed to be concealed to protect their identity. It’s true that the use of singular they for persons who are nonbinary or gender fluid is relatively new. But it’s also important to note that today, all the major style guides, grammar books, and usage manuals accept the form, advising writers to use a person’s pronoun when it’s known. Honoring gender pronouns is becoming a common practice in the business world as well, and parents usually want schools to give students the language tools that will help them succeed in that context.
We don’t know the specific details of the Wisconsin school case, but it’s possible that the school overreacted by threatening a Title IX investigation. Title IX, a 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act, is usually reserved for cases of serious sexual abuse. What the boys did may have been something as common as teasing or as serious as bullying, not a federal case at all but behavior better handled by a teacher or counselor. In any event, the school dropped its investigation, not because authorities feared a lawsuit, but after the school received anonymous threats of violence. Despite Justice Alito’s antipathy toward them, the Supreme Court hasn’t considered the constitutionality of pronoun mandates. But in 1949 the Court did find that the “heckler’s veto”—where a speaker is silenced by threats of violence—was an unconstitutional abridgment of the freedom of speech.
Conservatives invoke the First Amendment only when it suits them. They see nothing unconstitutional about imposing gag rules that support their agenda. In 1984 the Reagan administration banned organizations receiving federal funds from offering abortion counseling anywhere in the world, a rule that was re-imposed by George W. Bush on his first day in office in 2001. More recently, Republican-led states have passed laws banning discussions of “divisive” issues in schools. In one alarming case, a Texas school administrator warned teachers not to make any information on the Holocaust available in their classrooms unless they also presented information on the “other side.” The school backed down after it was forced to acknowledge that, when it comes to the Holocaust, there is no “other side.”
The pronoun mandates that Justice Alito worries about don’t aim to silence his or anyone else's speech. Instead, their goal is to validate the words of those whose voices have been consistently silenced. Official support for someone’s pronouns reinforces the need to maintain respectful, neutral interactions on the job, in the classroom, in the marketplace, and in other public situations where regulation is traditionally seen as appropriate—no different from restricting the use of racial, ethnic, or religious slurs, swearing, or harassment in such situations. Using such words in the workplace or the classroom may be your First Amendment right, but at best it’s in poor taste, and it can still get you fined, fired, or sent to the principal’s office.