SUU professor sues university officials, cites First Amendment in refusal to use students’ preferred pronouns

Theatre professor Richard Bugg filed a civil rights lawsuit against several Southern Utah University administrators on Aug. 29. 

Multiple SUU officials are listed as defendants, including President Mindy Benson, Assistant Vice President of Human Resources Kevin Price, Provost Jon Anderson, Title IX Coordinator Jake Johnson, Chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance, & Arts Administration Brian Swanson and Dean of the TDAA Department Shauna Mendini.

Bugg’s lawyer, Jerry Mooney, explained in correspondence with SUU News, “Federal procedural law does not allow us to sue the school directly, so we must sue those who enact and carry out its policies. Note that they are not sued as individuals but in their official capacity.”

The lawsuit comes after a student enrolled in Bugg’s class submitted a formal complaint to the Title IX office in September 2021 after Bugg refused to use the student’s preferred pronouns, they/them. SUU began investigating the complaint and later determined that Bugg violated university policy 5.27 regarding anti-discrimination and 5.60 regarding sexual misconduct.

In April 2022, administrators implemented sanctions on Bugg. First, he was required to submit to education on gender-neutral pronouns. He was also asked to make a good faith effort to use preferred pronouns. The third sanction stated that if he did not comply and students refused to take his classes as a result, “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.” 

Because SUU administrators were unable to individually comment on the pending litigation, SUU News was instead referred to the school’s official media statement, which explains that, “SUU employees are required to follow these federal guidelines, just as are all people who are employed in either the private or public sectors.”

As outlined in the lawsuit, Bugg believes that, “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.”

According to court documents, Bugg is not seeking monetary relief beyond reasonable attorneys’ fees. Instead, the professor is requesting several remedies from the university, including declaratory judgments stating that his conduct did not violate SUU’s written policies or Title IX and that the university violated his rights to free speech guaranteed under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. 

Bugg also requests that the court prohibit the defendants from, “investigating or sanctioning Plaintiff [Bugg] on the basis of any future student complaint which are inconsistent with any other portions of the Court’s declaratory judgment.”

SUU’s official media statement states, “The University strives to create an environment where meaningful learning is fostered without discrimination or substantial disruption. Southern Utah University is committed to the principles of free speech guaranteed by the U.S. and Utah constitutions, as well as applicable statutory and regulatory law as written in institutional Policy 5.1.”

As of this publication, no date has been set for the next step in the case.

This story is still developing as the lawsuit is still in its early stages. Check the SUU News website for updates.


Story by: Aspen English