Professor Sues U. of Wash. After Being Punished for ‘Inappropriate’ Opinion on Land Acknowledgments

 

Perhaps you’ve heard of “land acknowledgment” statements, which have come into vogue in educational and cultural institutions. In the higher education context, the gist of such statements — sometimes placed on course syllabi, sometimes spoken at meetings, exhibitions, or performances — is to state that the institution’s campus sits on occupied indigenous lands. This year, the University of Washington’s computer science department encouraged its faculty to issue such statements, offering approved language on how to word them. 

UW computer science professor Stuart Reges didn’t think much of this, viewing the exercise as performance (he’s not alone), so he crafted one of his own to make a point. More than four months later, after being accused of creating a “toxic environment” and subject to a seemingly unending harassment investigation, Reges has sued his employer to vindicate his First Amendment rights. Reges is represented by my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

Here’s FIRE’s recent press release with the rest of the background:

On Dec. 8, 2021, Reges criticized land acknowledgment statements in an email to faculty, and on Jan. 3, he included a modified version of UW’s example statement in his syllabus: “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.” Reges’s statement was a nod to John Locke’s philosophical theory that property rights are established by labor.

On Jan. 4, the director of the computer science department, Magdalena Balazinska, ordered Reges to immediately remove his modified statement from his syllabus, labeling it “inappropriate” and “offensive,” and declaring that it created “a toxic environment” in the course. Reges refused because Balazinska’s demand was viewpoint discriminatory — other computer science professors included their own land acknowledgments on their syllabi. But UW did not investigate or punish them because those statements, unlike Reges’s, were consistent with the university’s viewpoint. 

The university launched an official investigation into Reges for allegedly violating UW’s unconstitutionally overbroad harassment policy. This investigation has now dragged on for over four months. Balazinska also created a competing section of Reges’s course (featuring pre-recorded lectures by another professor) so students wouldn’t have to take a computer science class from someone who didn’t parrot the university’s preferred opinions. 

“It’s ironic that a university whose motto is ‘let there be light’ would shepherd students into a shadow course to shield them from a professor’s opinion,” said FIRE attorney Katlyn Patton. “If UW encourages professors to take a political stance on their syllabi, it cannot punish those professors who diverge from the school’s pre-approved stance. At UW, the message to faculty is clear: Toe the party line or say goodbye to your students.”

The irony is that to ensure that professors’ rights in this matter are secure, Reges’ department could simply have done nothing. Land acknowledgment statements are a clear exercise of professors’ academic freedom, one many are exercising on their own. Institutions can formulate their own statements, but punishing a professor for dissenting from the preferred opinion is a First Amendment line a public university should know better than to cross.

We’ll continue reporting on Reges’ case at FIRE. You can also read FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and FIRE attorney Josh Bleisch on the case this week at Common Sense, and watch our short video on the case below. (If you’re looking for extra credit, I’ve written on this general issue for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.) 

And for more on FIRE’s current work, check out the podcast I recorded with Ricochet’s Jon Gabriel this week!

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  1. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    It’s a shame this wasn’t posted first on the Member Feed, where more people would see it.

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Peter Bonilla: is to state that the institution’s campus sits on occupied indigenous lands.

    By “indigenous lands,” do they mean formerly owned American Indians?  Sheesh, you can’t build anything in this country without someone claiming “you’re doing this on indigenous lands” or “you’re destroying an Indian burial mound.”

    Too bad we don’t have the same reverence for all Civil or Revolutionary War battle sites . . .

    • #2
  3. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Stad (View Comment):

    Peter Bonilla: is to state that the institution’s campus sits on occupied indigenous lands.

    By “indigenous lands,” do they mean formerly owned American Indians? Sheesh, you can’t build anything in this country without someone claiming “you’re doing this on indigenous lands” or “you’re destroying an Indian burial mound.”

    Too bad we don’t have the same reverence for all Civil or Revolutionary War battle sites . . .

    Their land is sacred until they want to build a casino on it, or whatever.

    • #3
  4. Brian Scarborough Coolidge
    Brian Scarborough
    @Teeger

    Did the Native Americans “own” the land? They are animists – believing that all nature is alive and is “sacred” and cannot be owned. 

    • #4
  5. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Brian Scarborough (View Comment):

    Did the Native Americans “own” the land? They are animists – believing that all nature is alive and is “sacred” and cannot be owned.

    Hmm, but didn’t many Native American groups practice slavery?  That would seem to be a contradiction.

    • #5
  6. Brian Scarborough Coolidge
    Brian Scarborough
    @Teeger

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Brian Scarborough (View Comment):

    Did the Native Americans “own” the land? They are animists – believing that all nature is alive and is “sacred” and cannot be owned.

    Hmm, but didn’t many Native American groups practice slavery? That would seem to be a contradiction.

    Native Americans like many “uncivilized” tribal groups around the world did not have the practice of the ownership of land. Whatever the tribe could control it would but there were chiefs in charge. So they had authority structures which included enslaving those from other tribes. But they wouldn’t have thought of them as personal property. Their thinking was different from ours so we should not put their practices in our own cultural context. No doubt the slaves were slaves of the tribes and not of individual members.

    • #6
  7. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Brian Scarborough (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Brian Scarborough (View Comment):

    Did the Native Americans “own” the land? They are animists – believing that all nature is alive and is “sacred” and cannot be owned.

    Hmm, but didn’t many Native American groups practice slavery? That would seem to be a contradiction.

    Native Americans like many “uncivilized” tribal groups around the world did not have the practice of the ownership of land. Whatever the tribe could control it would but there were chiefs in charge. So they had authority structures which included enslaving those from other tribes. But they wouldn’t have thought of them as personal property. Their thinking was different from ours so we should not put their practices in our own cultural context. No doubt the slaves were slaves of the tribes and not of individual members.

    So they called it “control” rather than “own.”  Big whoop.

    • #7
  8. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    Peter Bonilla: “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.”

    This is so great. 

    • #8
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