Professor sues SUU, argues requirement to use student’s they/them pronouns violates free speech

The professor said he is “politically and educationally opposed” to using “plural” pronouns, according to the lawsuit.

(Southern Utah University) A theater arts professor sued Southern Utah University leaders on Aug. 30, 2022, arguing that being required to use they/them pronouns when referring to a nonbinary student violates his right to free speech, according to the lawsuit.

A Southern Utah University theater professor is suing university leaders after he was instructed to use they/them pronouns when referring to a nonbinary student or face sanctions, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Richard Bugg, a tenured professor at the public university in Cedar City, alleges that his right to free speech is threatened by SUU’s request that he engage in “politically sensitive speech to which the professor is politically and educationally opposed,” the complaint filed in federal court in Utah states.

The defendants named in the complaint include the university’s president and the dean of the university’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Arts Administration, among other SUU leaders. The student is not identified in court documents.

According to the filing, on the first day of the fall 2021 semester, the student requested that Bugg refer to them by the pronouns they use, which are they/them. Instead, the professor offered to use “whatever singular pronouns or proper name [the student] preferred,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit states that Bugg attempted not to use female pronouns when referring to the nonbinary student, a task described in the complaint as “virtually impossible.” But Bugg admits that he “unintentionally did so two or three times,” the lawsuit states.

The student submitted a formal complaint to the school’s Title IX Office on Sept. 15, 2021, six days after the fall semester began. A second student also submitted a complaint stating that they had been offended by the professor’s refusal to use they/them pronouns when referring to the first student.

According to the filing, the first student asked others in their class to boycott Bugg’s course and also asked the university to establish a “shadow class” for them to attend instead.

The university launched an investigation on Sept. 20 that year, and in January 2022 found that Bugg’s alleged actions were in violation of university policy and constituted discrimination and harassment based on gender identity.

In April, investigators further determined that Bugg’s refusal to use they/them pronouns also constituted sexual harassment, because it was considered “conduct based on sex” that was so severe and “objectively offensive” that it denied the student equal access to education.

Kevin Price, SUU’s assistant vice president of human resources, implemented three sanctions against Bugg, according to the lawsuit. First, Bugg was required to take a course on gender-neutral language. If he continued refusing to use the student’s pronouns, Bugg was told he may face further sanctions — including termination — and that his pay would be docked if the university had to open additional classes to accommodate students who wouldn’t register for his class.

In the lawsuit, Bugg said he is “opposed to the coercion of speech that is taking place on our campus and on most campuses.”

“Asking people to use plural pronouns to refer to individuals is one thing,” the complaint states. “Forcing them to do it is another and contrary to our rights of free speech.”

In the filing, Bugg asked the university to make several statements, including that he didn’t actually violate school policy, and that it isn’t a violation of Title IX for a professor to refuse to use the pronouns a student uses, the lawsuit states.

On Wednesday afternoon, the university said in a statement that it is aware of Bugg’s complaint.

“While SUU has limits on what it can discuss when an issue involves personnel matters or students, SUU implements and follows its established policies based on the law,” the statement reads. “This includes a meaningful opportunity for all to be heard before a decision is made.”

“The University strives to create an environment where meaningful learning is fostered without discrimination or substantial disruption,” the statement continued. “SUU looks forward to the opportunity to respond in court to the Plaintiff’s claims made at this preliminary stage of the lawsuit.”

Bugg did not respond to a request for comment. But his attorney, Jerome Mooney, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that the professor “wants people to express themselves the way they want to, but doesn’t feel like he should be compelled to do things which he personally finds objectionable.”

Mooney added that there “ought to be room for everybody to express themselves without starting to force people to act and speak in certain ways.”

Bugg is the founder of what used to be called the Neil Simon Festival, named after the famous playwright, who died in 2018. Attorneys representing the estate of Simon forced Bugg to change the festival’s name to the SimonFest Theatre Company in 2019.