Theater professor files lawsuit after being forced to use preferred pronouns

'Asking people to use plural pronouns to refer to individuals is one thing. Forcing them to do it is another and contrary to our rights of free speech.'

The professor came under investigation and was subsequently disciplined for not using ‘they/them’ pronouns for one of his students.

Richard Bugg, a theater professor, and Department Chair at Southern Utah University (SUU) filed a lawsuit and request for an injunction on Aug. 31 against university faculty and staff.

The lawsuit comes after Bugg came under investigation and was subsequently disciplined for not using ‘they/them’ pronouns for one of his students. The injunction would prevent the university from further retaliating against Bugg if he does not submit to using preferred pronouns while litigation takes place.   

Bugg explained his position on the situation in the lawsuit, “I ... am 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. Forcing them to do it is another and contrary to our rights of free speech.” 

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Bugg contends that on Sept. 9, 2021, in his Active IV class, a student who identifies as non-binary, “demanded” that he use the pronouns “they/them” when referring to the student. Bugg declined but offered to use the student’s chosen name and refrained from using pronouns when addressing the student. 

After that initial conversation, Bugg accidentally used female pronouns when referring to the students “two or three times,” according to the lawsuit. 

Days later on Sept. 15, 2021, the student filed an official complaint with SUU’s Title IX Office. The student allegedly told fellow students that the goal was “get the Professor fired because he would not agree to [the student’s] demands.”

SUU’s Title IX Office launched an investigation on Sept. 20 and held a hearing over zoom on March 23, 2022. The investigation concluded that Bugg had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy

Violations of the policy are determined by the following criteria:: “conduct based on sex which is ‘[1] so severe, [2] pervasive, and [3] objectively offensive,’ that it ‘effectively denies’ a student ‘equal access to University Education Program or Activity.’”  

The lawsuit argues against the investigation’s conclusion stating that “When he refused to use the demanded pronouns, he was expressing a legitimate political position on a matter of public concern and engaging in his First Amendment right against compelled expression.”

On May 3, Assistant Vice President, Human Resources Kevin Price, who is listed as one of the defendants in the lawsuit, sent a letter to Title IX Coordinator Jake Johnson, who is also listed as a defendant, instructing him to implement three sanctions against Bugg.

The first sanction required Bugg to receive “education about current views and opinions of English language and grammar experts and resources that using Gender-Neutral pronouns when referring to an individual is now considered grammatically correct.” 

The second sanction stated Bugg would face further action “up to and including termination” if he does not “make a good faith effort” to observe preferred pronouns.  

Third, if Bugg failed to correctly use preferred pronouns and students subsequently stop registering for his classes, “SUU will open additional sections of those classes and Professor Bugg’s pay will be reduced to offset the amounts SUU must pay for the additional sections.”

In response, Bugg’s lawsuit argues that “the failure of any of SUU’s written policies to clarify that use of preferred pronouns is compulsory rather than suggested, renders the sanctions against Plaintiff in violation of Plaintiff’s due process right to not be subject to vague requirements which impinge on his liberty.”

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Bugg submitted an appeal to the university regarding the sanctions on May 26 but was denied several weeks later on June 14 by Provost Dr. Jon Anderson, who is listed as a defendant in the suit. 

Director Of Public Relations David Bishop directed Campus Reform to a Sept. 1 statement, “While there is no SUU policy that specifically requires the use of gender pronouns, the University must strictly adhere to federal regulations regarding anti-discrimination (Policy 5.27) and sexual misconduct (Policy 5.60) under Title VII and Title IX respectively. Those regulations were updated in January 2021 with the Biden Administration expanding the definition of sex to include gender identity.”

Campus Reform contacted SUU, Bugg, Price, Dr. Anderson, and Johnson. This article will be updated accordingly.

Follow @kliseanderson on Twitter.