There is an interesting new lawsuit out of Southern Utah University where theater professor Richard Bugg has refused to use plural pronouns for a nonbinary student. It is only the latest such challenge on free speech grounds by those who reject the use of different pronouns for religious, social, or purely grammatical reasons. There are a couple of aspects of the case that are particularly interesting.
Bugg has had a distinguished career in the arts, including his founding of the Neil Simon Festival. (The Simon family later changed to the SimonFest Theatre Company in 2019).
The student submitted a formal complaint to the school’s Title IX Office on Sept. 15, 2021. A second student also submitted a complaint stating to have been offended by the professor’s refusal to use they/them pronouns.
The University requires faculty to adhere to the chosen pronouns of students. The University’s Undergraduate Handbook states:
“Gender Identify Announcement. 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.”
In a free speech challenge, most courts would be dubious about a claim based on a uniform policy in favor of pronoun election by students. The use of pronouns is not generally viewed as content basis regulation of speech. Indeed, Bugg is only objecting to the use of the plural pronoun as opposed to singular pronouns of the student’s choice:
“Although the Plaintiff Professor willingly agreed to refrain from using any gender-based pronouns to address that student, and affirmatively offered to address that student either by the student’s name or by the traditional singular pronouns of the student’s choice, his refusal to acquiesce in the student’s demands resulted in an order that any future refusal to acquiesce in those demands would result in severe discipline including the professor’s dismissal, among other possible sanctions.”
Yet, that raises an interesting question. Professor Bugg is saying that he was willing to simply refrain from using any gender-based pronouns and use the student’s name. We have discussed that option in earlier posts. Indeed, this position led to a settlement in the Meriwether case. Thus, Bugg is arguing that he was seeking to use an alternative to the pronouns while not insisting on using what he considered the appropriate pronouns. Many faculty have tried to stop using pronouns entirely to avoid such objections.
Bugg admitted he occasionally made a mistake on the use of pronouns but that he “unintentionally did so two or three times.”
Kevin Price, SUU’s assistant vice president of human resources, imposed sanctions against Bugg. As part of those sanctions, Bugg must take a course on gender-neutral language or face potential termination.
I was able to secure the complaint, attachments, and a key memo in the case. The final appeal document states that it was not good enough to avoid pronouns. Bugg had to make a good-faith effort to use them:
“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 sanctions up to and including termination.”
The final appeal also includes an additional sanction for a syllabus statement that, in my view, violates Professor Bugg’s academic freedom and free speech rights. The sanction followed Bugg’s inclusion of the following statement:
“This is a class dedicated to teaching the craft of acting. It is not a forum for social justice causes, nor a microcosm for political action movements. The discussion of all philosophies is welcome here, so long as it is part of our efforts to understand the craft and further the development of the acting characters we are creating. Please do not demand of your classmates any political or social compliance to your particular philosophy. The class will be a safe space in this definition only: We will attempt to create an atmosphere in which each student feels safe to risk failure in creating a character, expressing that character’s motivations, and fighting against that character’s obstacles – both physical and emotional. Please don’t expect to be “safe” from exposure to ideas or expressions that might be counter to your own views. You will best be served if you approach this class experience with an open mind and a loving respect for freedom of thought and speech.”
Provost Jon Anderson stated in the final appeal document that
“Each academic course includes learning outcomes that should be accomplished by students who complete the course. It seems there is significant inconsistency in the syllabus statements and policies related to various versions of the course under scrutiny. Some of these variations (as included in various testimonies) show significant differences in introductory syllabus statements. It seems reasonable that statements included in Richard Buggs syllabus should be similar to the syllabi statements included in other sections of the same course, or, at least be compliant with departmental guidance. In fact, one reading of Richard Bugg’s introductory statement in the syllabus on political neutrality could read as if Richard was inviting political debate rather than focusing the language on the process of acting.”
Anderson made the following finding in light of that record:
“Professor Richard 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.”
I found that finding deeply troubling. First, it is very common for faculty today to incorporate social justice and ideological elements in their classes. Indeed, some faculties encourage such inclusion. Professors are even denouncing math and statistics as racist. There is rarely objections to such inclusions.
Second, Anderson’s interpretation seems strained and counterintuitive. Bugg is anticipating that some discussions of acting could touch on political or social issues. That would seem obvious as the class discusses how characters are depicted or the underlying works. Yet, Anderson objects that Bugg appears to be “inviting political debate rather than focusing the language on the process of acting.” That is not a fair reading in my view but also this would seem well protected under academic freedom. His statement mirrors the “Chicago Rule” on free speech that some academics (including myself) support.
Finally, I do not see why a university should be able to force uniformity in syllabi. That is precisely what academic freedom is about. We recently discussed a related issue with regard to “land acknowledgment” statements. Professor Bugg should be able to post a statement on his teaching philosophy even if it is unique or other faculty do not agree.