Preferred pronouns collide with the First Amendment at SUU

Sep 1, 2022, 6:00 PM | Updated: Sep 2, 2022, 8:25 am
Southern Utah University announced last week that three finalists have emerged for the position of University President. File photo: Stace Hall, KSL TV

SALT LAKE CITY — Preferred pronouns in schools ended up in the headlines recently. A professor refuses to refer to a student by the student’s preferred pronouns — and rather than face more discipline from the university — he is suing the university. A lawyer examines his lawsuit while a trans-expert explains the importance of pronouns to teens. 

Richard Bugg, a Southern Utah University tenured professor, is suing the university over a non-binary student’s preferred they/them pronouns, claiming it infringes on his political beliefs and his First Amendment right to free speech.

SUU professor sues school over preferred pronouns

Meanwhile at Farmington Junior High School, three school counselors had new placards made that showed their preferred pronouns. In response parents sent hateful emails and made angry phone calls to the school. Police were called to the school.

Parents outraged after preferred pronouns posted by Farmington Jr. High counselors

Preferred pronouns and the law

KSL Legal Analyst Greg Skordas joins hosts of KSL at Night Maura Carabello and Taylor Morgan to discuss the legal dimensions of the professor’s lawsuit.

Reading over the 80-page lawsuit, Skordas said the professor, who teaches in the acting department, refused to refer to a student who prefers the pronouns they/them. Bugg cited his right to freedom of speech in his defense.

“He also thought it was inappropriate to use a plural pronoun to describe an individual,” Skordas added.

People who prefer the they/them pronoun are non-binary and identify with neither male nor female.

The student complained to the university, which investigated and sanctioned Bugg, saying his actions amounted to sexual harassment. Bugg has been sanctioned three times, according to reporting by KSL NewsRadio.

“Rather than suffer the consequences or change his conduct, he’s now sued the school for what we call declaratory relief. In other words, ‘Hey, you guys need to change your policy. You’ve gone way too far here, and the discipline doesn’t fit the conduct,'” Skordas said.

Skordas views the lawsuit as unnecessary and said both sides share blame in the dust-up.

“I think the school came down a little heavy handed with him. But I also think the professor — there was such an easy fix to this. . . I mean, just refer to the student by whatever they want to be called,” he said.

 “There’s also always just calling someone by their name, right? You may always default to that,” Maura noted.

Taylor said the legal case isn’t about politics or pronouns or “being woke.”

“I think, fundamentally, are we willing to respect one another? And are we willing to maybe learn something from another person?” he asked

A pronoun tutorial

Sue Robbins of Equality Utah’s Transgender Advisory Council joins KSL NewsRadio’s Debbie Dujanovic to explain the importance of pronouns to teens.

“When a student asks to be referred to using their preferred pronouns, why do you suppose we are having so much heartburn and controversy over it?” Debbie asked.

“I think we are caught in the times where everything is confrontational right now and that brings a big part of it out. People just want to attack, especially in our schools,” Robbins said. “There are people out there who are surprised that we actually have to say our pronouns sometimes.”

Robbins said the people most upset over using a person’s preferred pronouns are pushing back against the transgender community.

“It drives us out of the public light and denies our existence,” she said.

“Talk about the use of pronouns and particularly highlight the non-binary use of pronouns. I think that is what gets most people confused,” Debbie said.

“Understandably, it is new to people, so that’s the part that we feel should be educational,” Robbins said. “My name is Sue and I identify — I am female — and I use she/her pronouns. So that works pretty seamlessly for most people unless they’re really trying to attack the transgender community, then they will refer to me as a “he” to try and denigrate me.”

The non-binary community, also called non-conforming or gender fluid, prefer they/them pronouns, Robbins said.

“It’s actually a very open thing to share your pronouns,” she said. “It’s not an oppressive thing.”

Using a person’s preferred pronouns is an affirmation of “who we are,” Robbins said


Suspended Kansas teacher who refused to use student’s preferred pronouns awarded $95,000 in suit


Dave & Dujanovic can be heard Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL NewsRadio. KSL at Night is on weekdays from 7-9 p.m.

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Preferred pronouns collide with the First Amendment at SUU