UW Professor Triggers Free Speech Fight Over “Indigenous Land Acknowledgement”

There is a major fight unfolding over free speech and academic freedom at the University of Washington where computer science Professor Stuart Reges has been ordered to remove a statement from his syllabus. After the university encouraged faculty to add a prewritten “Indigenous land acknowledgement” statement to their syllabi, Reges decided to write his own statement. He has now been told that, while the university statement is optional, his statement is unacceptable because it questions the indigenous land claim of the Coast Salish people.

The school provided a recommended statement for all faculty to post and/or read to their students at the first of every course:

“The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.”

Professor Reges disagrees with that statement and expressed his doubts to the faculty while also noting that “Magda” did not want the faculty to discuss such reservations on the email system. That may be a reference to the Director of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering Magdalena Balazinska.

Reges’ alternative statement read:

“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.”

The labor theory (which I teach) is generally a reference to the theory of John Locke. In this Second Treatise, Locke laid the foundation for property as a divine gift of God that began in the state of nature where all was created in common by God.  Here is the key passage:

“The labor of his body, and the work of his hands we may say are properly his  Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in he hath mixed his labor with, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.  It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other Men.  For this Labour being the unquestionable Property of the Labourer, no Man but he can have a right to what that is once joyned to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.”

Reges clearly believes that the claim of the university land was not sufficiently used or developed to bestow a claim upon the Coast Salish people, which is a broad collection of different groups that stretched from British Columbia to Oregon. The association is based on ethnic or linguistic associations.

At one time, this would have been treated as an interesting foundation for an academic debate over the meaning of ownership, Western v. indigenous views of property, and related issues. There is also the question of whether sweeping claims to such lands violates “Locke’s Proviso” to leave “as good left in common for others.”

Magdalena Balazinska wrote in the email to Reges that

“[i]t is offensive, and it creates a toxic environment in your course, which is a required course in our major. You are welcome to voice your opinion and opposition to land acknowledgements, as you have, in other settings. The current statement in your course syllabus is inappropriate and must be removed.”

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) in a letter to UW, the university is supporting the dean in ordering the removal of the statement.

One can certainly disagree with the use of the labor theory in this or other contexts. It has been criticized as a Western rationalization for taking native lands. Others, however, have noted that Locke’s theory supports indigenous groups in their claim to lands so long as they establish the labor element. One passage is particularly notable (and rarely referenced by those criticizing the theory) in defending the right of indigenous peoples:

the inhabitants of any country who are descended and derive a title to their estates from those who are subdued and had a government forced upon them against their free consents retain a right to the possession of their ancestors…for the first conqueror never having had a title to the land of that country, the people who are the descendants of, or claim under, those who were forced to submit to the yoke of a government by constraint have always a right to shake it off and free themselves from the usurpation or tyranny which the sword has brought in upon them… Their persons are free by a native right, and their properties, be they more or less, are their own and at their own disposal, and not at his’

Locke published those words in 1689.

That is a worthy debate to have but the school is having none of it as part of its syllabi policy. Dean Balazinska wrote to Fox News to say that “[t]he statement Stuart Reges included in his syllabus was inappropriate, offensive and not relevant to the content of the course he teaches.” However, it was the university that was encouraging the inclusion of an “Indigenous land acknowledgement” in every course. It was deemed sufficiently important and relevant to be uniformly used. Professor Reges is making an opposing statement based on his deeply held intellectual views.

Moreover, one can argue that the labor theory is relevant to most courses as are other foundational theories. Leading universities are not trade schools that just teach skills. They ideally tie their subjects to a deeper theoretical foundation. Indeed, part of the new movement in academia is to incorporate diversity, social justice, and equity issues in every discipline. Such questions are viewed as relevant, if not imperative, for inclusion. We have previously discussed controversies at schools where professors are asserting that science and technology courses are shaped by “white privilege.” Academics like Rhode Island Professor Erik Loomis have declared that science and statistics are racist while others have declared math is racist. No one has suggested that such viewpoints are “not relevant to the content of the course[s]” being taught in these areas.

The University of Washington has encouraged faculty to deal with racial justice and equity in every aspect of their teaching, writing, and community work.  It is not clear where the university is drawing the line on germaneness for a given subject matter in this context. The university sought to incorporate this issue in every course and this faculty member wants to do so from an opposing viewpoint.

The controversy at the University of Washington raises the concern that “voluntary” statements have a certain involuntary or even coercive element. It is not clear how an untenured faculty member would fare if the professor declined such invitations or suggestions. It is certainly precarious for an untenured person to openly disagree with such policies. Even if you prevail, you may find yourself unemployed when your contract is not renewed. We recently discussed that concern where a St. John’s professor prevailed in a fight over his questioning reparations, but was later denied the renewal of his contract. The termination sent a chilling message to all faculty members.

We previously discussed how an acting Northwestern Law Dean declared publicly “I am James Speta and I am a racist.” He was followed by Emily Mullin, executive director of major gifts, who announced, “I am a racist and a gatekeeper of white supremacy. I will work to be better.”  I have no problem with a dean making such statements based on his own convictions and would defend his right to do so under free speech and academic freedom principles. However, there is also a concern that such decanal statements create pressure on others (particularly untenured members) to begin remarks with such confessional statements. That is why schools must be vigilant and open in supporting a diversity of opinions and making clear that faculty will not be held to any de facto orthodoxy.

That brings us back to Professor Reges. Frankly, I would not have posted this statement because I find it gratuitous and peevish as part of a syllabus. However, ordering a faculty member to remove such a statement (after encouraging the inclusion of the official statement) is deeply concerning.

The key to this dispute, in my view, is that the underlying matter is a subject to debate. Indeed, some liberal writers have characterized these statements as “virtue signaling”: “Land acknowledgments are similarly confected to stroke the sentiments of mostly non-Indigenous audiences—this time by enabling their preening self-criticism.”

This controversy would be different if the university called for a statement that each professor recognizes the obligation not to engage in racial or other forms of discrimination. That is a requirement of federal law as well as university rules. If a faculty member instead posted a belief in the inferiority of certain groups and an intent to discriminate, he could reasonably be sanctioned. We have discussed such statements made by faculty, including controversial “who I am” statements or issuing “giant warnings” to those who disagree with anti-racist viewpoints.

Of course, faculty often espouse controversial viewpoints outside of the classroom. I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments “detonating white people,” denouncing policecalling for Republicans to suffer,  strangling police officerscelebrating the death of conservativescalling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other outrageous statements. Indeed, University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who has defended the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence.

Even when faculty engage in such hateful acts on campus, however, there is a notable difference in how universities respond depending on the viewpoint. At the University of California campus, professors actually rallied around a professor who physically assaulted pro-life advocates and tore down their display.  In the meantime, academics and deans have said that there is no free speech protection for offensive or “disingenuous” speech.  CUNY Law Dean Mary Lu Bilek showed how far this trend has gone. When conservative law professor Josh Blackman was stopped from speaking about “the importance of free speech,”  Bilek insisted that disrupting the speech on free speech was free speech. (Bilek later cancelled herself and resigned after she made a single analogy to acting like a “slaveholder” as a self-criticism for failing to achieve equity and reparations for black faculty and students). We also previously discussed the case of Fresno State University Public Health Professor Dr. Gregory Thatcher who recruited students to destroy pro-life messages written on the sidewalks and wrongly told the pro-life students that they had no free speech rights in the matter.

As noted, there is a great push to include social justice and equity elements in every course. I take no issue with such suggestions but I have considerable problem with compelled statements or positions for faculty members in their courses. There is little difference between requiring one statement or punishing an opposing statement. Both further an orthodoxy and hegemony of viewpoints.

The University of Washington wanted faculty to issue an indigenous land statement. Reges did so from an opposing viewpoint. That would seem a matter of academic freedom on a subject deemed “relevant” for syllabi. When you encourage such statements from faculty, you are in for a penny or a pound as they address the issue.

Rather than threaten to sanction Reges, why not debate him? These are interesting issues with historical, racial justice, free speech, and academic freedom elements. There was a time when such debates were not just welcomed but fostered on our campuses. This is clearly not those times.

49 thoughts on “UW Professor Triggers Free Speech Fight Over “Indigenous Land Acknowledgement””

  1. “As noted, there is a great push to include social justice and equity elements in every course. I take no issue with such suggestions but I have considerable problem with compelled statements or positions for faculty members in their courses.”

    The problem is that this push is not really a “suggestion.” Instead, professors are increasingly being judged by their level of DEI advocacy for hiring, retention, and tenure. Even if any given action is “optional,” the standards are being rewritten to ensure that non-compliance is considered a “lack of commitment” to DEI. And of course, that DEI advocacy better be only in ways that are approved by the DEI administrators without any debate or discussion, thus we get land acknowledgements, pronouns, etc. to signal one’s “commitment to DEI” (even though there are excellent arguments for why including those might not have the intended effect and actually backfire).

    It’s less the overt cases like this one that are worrying (hopefully UW will back down in the face of FIRE in this case), it’s the gradual use of DEI as an all-powerful tool to enforce political orthodoxy and punish dissenters in many less-noticeable ways that’s really going to do the damage to any concept of free speech or freedom of thought on campuses.

  2. There are no people who are “indigenous” to America.

    There are people who migrated to America from Asia.

    There are nomadic people who established no property boundaries and no property titles.

    There were no registered properties when Europeans migrated to America.

    There were no registered titles and there were no courts when Europeans migrated to America.

    Europeans established surveyed property.

    Europeans registered property deeds and established property titles.

    Asiatic nomads have no claim to property other than that which was provided by recorded treaty.

    The University of Washington has no power to issue or register property titles or to negotiate or treaties with nomadic tribes which hold no registered titles other than that which was provided by treaty.

    1. “. . . who established no property boundaries and no property titles.”

      Amazing, isn’t it, that those who had no concept of “private property,” are now invoking the concept of “private property.”

  3. More of the famous leftist tolerance we keep hearing about. From Rasmussen Reports polling:

    – Nearly half (48%) of Democratic voters think federal and state governments should be able to fine or imprison individuals who publicly question the efficacy of the existing COVID-19 vaccines on social media, television, radio, or in online or digital publications. Only 27% of all voters – including just 14% of Republicans and 18% of unaffiliated voters – favor criminal punishment of vaccine critics.


    They really do hate us, don’t they? And why not, if not for people like us deplorables, the woke crowd would already have their multiculti utopia.

    Kind of reminds me of the “wreckers and saboteurs” accusations during the Stalin era.


    1. Well, that would mean that 48% of Democrats would fine the authors and publishers of medical papers that study declining efficacy of the vaccine in the face of new variants.

  4. Stuart Reges rank is Principal Lecturer. As such, not a tenured or tenurable position and hence without academic freedom, just like TAs.

    JT is wrong to state that he is a professor.

      1. Olly, an essay not necessarily an editorial. Who knows where it appeared.

        1. an essay not necessarily an editorial. Who knows where it appeared.

          Well that’s a distinction without a difference. Since Hank Levy, the Director, Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering took the time to address a lengthy rebuttal to the the Allen School community, no doubt it had a readership worthy of his effort.

          That reflects how free speech works, and should work, at least within the Allen School.

    1. JT is wrong to state that he is a professor.

      He is much smarter than the head of the dept and the Dean. That would “letters” signify no advanced knowledge.

      Reges based his opinion on writing of Locke.

      The “geniuses at the university with all of their combined advanced degrees have offered zero basis for their mandated statement.

      everyday we learn educated is often opposite of informed

    2. “JT is wrong to state that he is a professor.”

      You don’t know what you’re talking about.

      There are numerous, non-tenure track teaching and research positions at universities around the country — all of which carry the title: “Professor.” There are adjunct *professors*, *professors* of the practice, research *professors*, and in this case: Principal Lecturer = “Teaching *Professor*”. (That is UW’s own designation.)

      “. . . not a tenured or tenurable position and hence without academic freedom . . .”

      Again, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Assuming the validity of “academic freedom,” it applies to *all* professors at a university, unless that person is acting in an official capacity as a spokesman for the university (e.g., a dean). More importantly, as a *public* university, 1A applies and protects Reges’ speech.

  5. Some of you might remember comments I made last year and earlier this year: Fear not China, Russia, North Korea. Rather, fear the insidious, matastasizing propaganda controlled by media and academia-sometimes overt, sometimes subliminal, but always proselytizing with a left-wing agenda–so idiopathic that it was allowed to slowly fester over decades with impunity. So very much of our language is based on Greek and Roman roots, but what happened to good old Socratic debate to teach our youth[s]?

    1. lin,
      “what happened to good old Socratic debate to teach our youth[s]?”

      It went by the wayside particularly when standardized tests sidelined the learning of history, I’d hazard. “Who’s Socrates?” too many of our youth (and maybe even their teachers and the administrators) might ask. The immediacy of Big Tech may also be narrowing our to *now*, so who really needs history if you’re stuck in fulfilling a Facebook-fueled dopamine hit. Sigh.

  6. @Iowan2 re: the university’s demand – Not sure if this is foundational or tangental to your criticism, but: If Turley has accurately quoted the University phrase (I can’t honestly term it a statement) regarding land and indignant peoples, it is an ungrammatical (agrammatical?) mess that doesn’t even claim what they evidently intend it to claim, unless that *was* the intent: to create some pretentious, high-sounding words that would pacify the semi-literate ignoramuses, while not actually saying anything.
    “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.”
    Parse “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land…” It seems to say only that the Coast Salish people exist, and have some vague connection to (“of”) the land in question. There is not any kind of explcit (or even strongly implicit) contention of that tribe’s rights and privileges in that land. “…the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.” is nothing but a clause (and a very sloppy one at that) describing the location and boundaries of the the land in question.

    1. Grima, follow one of Turly links. It takes you to a piece from the Atlantic. They explain these statements

      “Land acknowledgment is an easy way to show honor and respect to the indigenous people.” A great deal of nonsense about identity politics could be avoided by studying this line, and realizing that respect shown the “easy way” is just as cheap as it sounds.


      What I take away, these Land Acknowledgement Statements are raw pandering. In my mind, condescending to the max. It’s alot like the Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” shtick.
      The Prof being slapped back is calling out the pandering. And to his credit, is basing his statement on SOMETHING. A fact that really exposes the Emperor Administration really is standing naked and people are starting to point and giggle. (In my dreams I can handle the pointing, the giggles are crippling however)

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