Punished for not using a student’s preferred pronouns, theater professor sues

September 8, 2022

A lawsuit filed last week by theater professor Richard Bugg against administrators at Southern Utah University alleges that key school officials violated his First Amendment rights when they punished him for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns.

Bugg is represented by FIRE Faculty Legal Defense Fund network attorney Jerome H. Mooney, with FLDF’s financial support. FLDF offers “first responder” legal assistance to protect the academic freedom and free expression rights of  faculty at public colleges and universities, and where appropriate supports litigation when on-campus efforts meet resistance. 

Bugg’s lawsuit alleges that when a student in his 2021 fall semester acting class requested Bugg use they/them pronouns when referring to that student, Bugg instead offered to use that student’s given or preferred proper name. Although Bugg attempted not to use female pronouns to refer to the student, he mistakenly did so two to three times, by his own admission. Despite Bugg’s proposed accommodation, the student filed a Title IX complaint against him alleging Bugg would not refer to the student using gender-neutral pronouns. 

Professors have a general duty to be respectful and professional. They also have a right to private conscience, religious freedom, and freedom of speech.

After a hearing, SUU determined Bugg violated university policy by engaging in “conduct that constitutes ‘discrimination’ and ‘harassment’ based on gender identity.” As punishment, SUU has required Bugg to take a class about the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the English language, and that Bugg use students’ preferred pronouns. SUU also cautioned that if Bugg’s continued refusal to use preferred pronouns causes students to avoid registering for his classes, SUU will open additional sections, and will reduce Bugg’s pay to offset the cost of the additional sections. It also threatened Bugg with possible termination.

Professors have a general duty to be respectful and professional. They also have a right to private conscience, religious freedom, and freedom of speech. Where professors can find reasonable alternatives to using a student’s preferred pronouns, such as using the student’s preferred name instead (as Bugg did), their college must allow for that reasonable accommodation. 

Bugg’s suit follows another recent legal fight over a professor’s objection to using a student’s preferred pronouns in the classroom. In Meriwether v. Hartop, professor Nicholas Meriwether at Shawnee State University in Ohio refused to use the preferred pronouns of a female-identifying student due to Meriwether’s sincerely held religious objections. After he was punished, Meriwether sued, alleging Shawnee State’s non-discrimination policy was unconstitutional, that the university retaliated against him for his protected speech, and that the school violated his free exercise of religion. 

Last year, a federal appeals court held there was no evidence that Meriwether’s conduct created a hostile educational environment and thus the university asserted no interest that outweighed  his First Amendment interest in expressing his personal convictions regarding pronoun use. 

With his lawsuit, Bugg seeks to ensure that public colleges and universities do not overstep where matters of free speech and conscience are at stake. 

The use of preferred and nonbinary gender pronouns is a matter of active public debate, and people have differing opinions on gender and gender expression. Compelling speech to align with a particularized viewpoint violates fundamental values of free speech and private conscience. Describing an individual with pronouns that the individual finds offensive can be part of a pattern of unlawful harassment or discrimination. But professors should not be punished for accidentally using a student’s incorrect pronouns, nor would the law on discrimination and harassment require they be punished. Colleges must provide breathing room for both professorial and student speech. 

With his lawsuit, Bugg seeks to ensure that public colleges and universities do not overstep where matters of free speech and conscience are at stake. 


FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).


Schools:  Southern Utah University

Cases:  Southern Utah University: Professor Sues After Being Disciplined for Not Using Student’s Preferred Pronouns