Southern Utah Professor Sues Over Mandatory Use of Pronouns

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.

This is a case worth watching, particularly on the school’s position that it is not enough to avoid “misgendering” or misidentifying students over pronouns. The further requirement to affirmatively require the use of pronouns could give a court pause.
Professor Bugg is being represented by Utah attorney Jerome Mooney.
Here are the documents in the case:


114 thoughts on “Southern Utah Professor Sues Over Mandatory Use of Pronouns”

  1. All students at all schools and colleges should from now on insist upon being addressed as ‘White Ruler’, ‘White Goddess’ ‘King of
    the Earth’, ‘Divine Princess’. ‘Major Stud’, etc. Anything to irritate the wokesters and snowflakes in class, along with the instructors. See how THEY like being TOLD how to speak. The campus ‘language Police’ will be chewing the carpet. If XI and Zir and similar pronoun absurdities are permitted, non-woke students should demand that their language choices be equally accommodated.

  2. So if my personal pronouns are handsome and intelligent, or whatever I decide them to be, others are obligated to use them to keep me safe? What insanity!

  3. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”


  4. They changed the definition of a vaccine and a recession. They demand that we accept that a man can be a woman and vice versa. They say that if you are not attracted to a trans person there is something wrong with you. They say that children up to 17 cannot be held accountable for their criminal behavior because they lack the cognitive functions to control themselves and that children as young as 5 are capable of determining their gender. And now they demand that our commonly accepted language be changed from singular to plural upon demand. Where does this end?

  5. When speaking to someone, the pronoun ‘you’ is gender neutral. In fact it is species neutral. It refers to someone or something specific other than me toward whom I am directing my attention. Consequently, the only time a pronoun other than ‘you ‘would be used is when referring to someone in the third person.

  6. I sense academia is being hoisted on their own petard. Pretty soon, only loons shall attend university.

  7. As a recently retired professor who worked in Instructional Design and Curriculum Development, I heartily agree with your syllabus conclusions. An additionally point I’ll offer is this – full time faculty will have a minimum of standard verbiage they are required to put in their syllabi. It comes from the university, the college, and the department and often includes policies about attendance or ADA accommodations, etc… Once those paragraphs are in, you can adjust it to suit yourself. Mr. Bugg’s statement about ‘safe spaces’ falls directly into academic freedom (as well as adult responsibility!). It is the sort of individual faculty initiative that separates one professor from another and creates intellectual diversity in the academy. Different professors’ sections of the same course should have differences in the syllabi.

    There is a full range of controls that can be laid on curriculum, extending from weakly planned to what used to be called ‘teacher proof curriculum’. The latter was created by instructional designers and was so detailed and locked down that no teacher could alter it. In general it is abhorrent and to be avoided. However, when training jump masters or even artillery teams uniformity is pretty important. That isn’t the case here. Mr. Bugg needs to have the latitude to make classroom decisions.

  8. We can only hope that this bizarre trend passes into the ash heap of history such as: Male jumpsuits, leisure suits, shoulder pads, leg warmers, and the mullet. When the economy crashes and people return to being thankful for anything to eat, I there will be less leisure time to harass and intimidate people trying to do their job.

    For crying out loud! Just let people be people. Accept them for who and what they are and how they were born. Instead, these activists are busy inventing new categories and jargon and forcing others to comply at the jeopardy of their livelihood or their school career.

    Here is an example of something we once thought was cool.

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