A Southern Utah University professor is suing university leaders over imposed sanctions after he refused to use preferred pronouns when referring to a nonbinary student, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Professor Richard Bugg is a theater professor at the university, where he has taught for the last 30 years. He alleges that his right to free speech is being infringed upon by the university requesting that he engage in "politically sensitive speech to which the professor is politically and educationally opposed," the complaint, filed in federal court in Utah, says.
The defendants named in the complaint include SUU President Mindy Benson and the dean of the university's Department of Theatre, Dance and Arts Administration, among other SUU leaders.
According to the complaint, during the first meeting of Bugg's Acting IV class on the university's first day of the 2021 fall semester, a student enrolled in the class requested that Bugg refer to them using they/them pronouns.
Bugg refused, instead offering "to use (the student's) name or whatever singular pronouns or proper name (the student) preferred in order to accommodate (the student) and make (the student) feel as comfortable as possible without violating the professor's own deeply-held beliefs and convictions," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also claims that Bugg attempted to not use female pronouns when describing the students but admitted that he "unintentionally did so two or three times."
The student then submitted a formal complaint to the university's Title IX Office on Sept. 15, 2021. Another student in the class also submitted a complaint, claiming to have been offended by the Bugg's refusal to honor the first student's request to be referred to using they/them pronouns.
Five days after these complaints were submitted, the university initiated a formal investigation, conducted by Johnny MacLean, Caitlin Gerrity, Brian Fullerton and Jeremiah Smith.
In January, the investigative report found that Bugg's refusal to address the student by the student's preferred pronouns was in violation of SUU policies 5.27 and 5.60 and was "discrimination and harassment based on gender identity."
It also found that his refusal to use the student's preferred pronouns constituted sexual harassment in that it was "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive," that it "effectively denied the student's equal access to education," the lawsuit alleges.
In the federal complaint, Bugg stated that 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. Forcing them to do it is another and contrary to our rights of free speech," Bugg said in the lawsuit.
Four months after the investigation report was released, in May, Kevin Price, SUU's assistant vice president of human resources, implemented the following three sanctions against Bugg, according to the lawsuit:
- "Professor Richard Bugg submit to 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.
- This action and decision stand as written warning regarding the use of preferred pronouns. If Professor Bugg continues to refuse to make a good faith effort to use preferred pronouns it will be considered an additional violation of policy 5.60 and 5.27 and may result in further sanction up to and including termination.
- If Professor Bugg refuses to make a good faith effort to use pronouns requested by SUU students, and as a result, students refuse to register for sections of classes he teaches, SUU will open additional section of those classes and Professor Bugg's pay will be reduced to offset the amounts SUU must pay for the additional sections."
On May 26, Bugg appealed the sanctions and his appeal was denied on June 14.
In response to his appeal, SUU Provost Jon Anderson added an additional sanction, stating that Bugg "must review, and edit as necessary, his syllabus language to ensure it aligns with department guidance related to gender pronouns, and submit the syllabus for approval by the department chair two weeks before the start of the fall 2022 semester."
"This decision brings the current issue to closure, as it is the final decision of the university," Anderson said in his letter responding to Bugg's appeal.
In the lawsuit, Bugg asks 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 comes on the same day that outrage ensued at Farmington Junior High School after school counselors had new placards made that showed their preferred pronouns.
SUU responded to the lawsuit on Wednesday, issuing the following statement:
"Southern Utah University is aware of a complaint filed in federal court by Richard Bugg. 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. 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. SUU looks forward to the opportunity to respond in court to the plaintiff's claims made at this preliminary stage of the lawsuit."
According to SUU's College of Performing Arts Undergraduate Student Handbook: "Students have the right to express their gender identity freely. The faculty are committed to creating a safe positive learning environment for each and every student. If a student would prefer that we use a specific gender pronoun, please let faculty know during class introductions, office hours, or by email."