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 police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling 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.