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. The Universities demand.
    “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.”

    Prof Reges own thoughts
    “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 Universities reasons
    “[i]t is offensive, and it creates a toxic environment in your course, …The current statement in your course syllabus is inappropriate and must be removed.”

    What is missing? The basis for a disagreement. What is missing is the University laying out their foundational basis for demanding the precise language. Absent a foundational standard that could take the place of Prof Reges foundational basis for his statement. I keep going back to a basic premise. These are highly educated persons. All of that education and the very best they got is “because I said so”

  2. Standard Democrat practice of doing outrageous things to obscure them stealing money

    They could care less about indigenous people, blacks, women, immigrants, sexual oddballs, etc.

    The real goal…MONEY AND POWER.

    Universities have turned out thousands upon thousands of people…incapable or just who refuse to repaying their student loans. Basically their education was worth less than they paid.

    Democrats plan…STEAL $2 Trillion Dollars of TAXPAYER MONEY!


  3. Those who attack, ridicule, or otherwise have grievances with Professor Turley’s choice of subjects upon which to give his commentary should remember something: you are being given free rein to say pretty much whatever you want in this forum created by Prof. Turley, and so far as we know, Turley prints everything submitted. Does Twitter do that? Not any more. Does YouTube do that? Not any more. Does Facebook do that. No. So the next time any of us feel compelled to make a comment which may be at odds with, or critical of, Turley, remember with some minimal gratitude that we still have the right to do so in this country.

  4. I’m curious. Who owns the Black Hills?

    Over just 300 years, the Black Hills was held, and lost, by the Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Arapaho . The Lakota/Sioux arrived from Minnesota and drove the Arapaho out, and in turn, they were defeated by Americans. Instead of being driven from all American territory, as each former tribe had done, they are all now Americans.

    In total, there were around 24 tribes who called the Black Hills their sacred homelands, each driving the previous tribe out.

    Yet the Sioux want the Black Hills to be considered theirs eternally. They want it back from the US government. Leftist public schools and universities call it “stolen land”. On “indigenous day” it’s lamented that this last tribe lost it.

    Where is the lament for all the other tribes? If the Sioux received all of this valuable land back, would they then turn around and give it back to the Arapaho, and on down perhaps all the way to the surviving Clovis?

    Why is America treated so differently than any of the other tribes who conquered land? There were no land deeds in ancient American tribes. Once you walked on land, built a fire, and hunted, you did not own that land in perpetuity, down to your last descendent. You held territory until and unless you lost territory.

    Tribes didn’t stay within their boundaries for 10,000 years. If they found better hunting grounds, and they were strong, they fought for it. After Europeans arrived and brought horses, there arose an entire industry of stealing horses from rival tribes, to weaken them and strengthen their own. In most tribes, if a native saw something he wanted in a rival tribe, whether a woman, horse, weapon, or food, he fought and took it. What we would now consider theft and rape increased his status in his tribe.

    The notion that Native American tribes were peace loving hippies smoking peace pipes and getting along with nature and other humans is absurd. Peace depended upon how strong you and your rivals were, the availability of food and water, and the weather. The Iroquois Nation were particularly notorious for the genocide and enslavement of rival tribes.

    1. “Instead of being driven from all American territory, as each former tribe had done, they are all now Americans.”

      I like that. Indians acted in an exclusionary fashion pushing out the earlier settlers of the region while Americans were inclusive.

      Inclusion rather than exclusion is perhaps what the left and SJW hate most about America.

  5. A renowned astrophysicist did a case study on the US Space Force making contact with indigenous people on planets from other galaxies.

    You have now entered the Twilight Zone.

  6. Great new name for the Washington football team. The Washington Indegenous persons. Now that sounds Intimidating.

  7. “Rather than threaten to sanction Reges, why not debate him?”

    Because such universities do not tolerate or teach opposing ideas. Education is no longer their goal. They are Ministries of Propaganda.

    Their attitude (which I’ve witnessed first hand) is: The higher authorities have decreed a monolithic ideology. You will submit. Or else.

  8. Interesting how Democrats Never GIVE their personal property away…for all these fake causes!

    There is NO ONE more Hate filled, greedy, lying, cheating, hypocrite than a Democrat!

    All Democrats should be REQUIRED to give away 100% of their personal wealth to Natives, Blacks, Illegal Invaders, etc… Then LEAVE THE COUNTRY!

  9. I do not understand why Professor Turley takes “no issue” with including “social justice and equity elements” in “every” course. “Social justice” and “equity” are contested political and philosophical concepts. Hayek even argued that the concept “social justice” is not merely contested but actually meaningless. Most courses of study have methodologies and bodies of knowledge that are independent of the inevitability subjective political or philosophical views held by teachers and students on these matters. So, it seems to me that, for many courses, including these elements is pointless, and likely to detract from mastery of an area of study. We should all take issue with it, even if we think it inappropriate to prohibit teachers from including them.

    1. Daniel, all the answers seem to lie within one question.

      Social justice forces people to be treated unequally. How can treating people unequally make one equal?

      1. ATS writes below, probably intended to be deleted: “Fud, confused as usual.”

        I wasn’t going to answer a meaningless reflex, but then I realized that on the blog, ATS is one of the leading proponents of social justice. That means he should have an answer to the question if he has a mind that can engage in critical thinking.

        Instead of a petty exchange, I ask ATS the following question again.

        “Social justice forces people to be treated unequally. How can treating people unequally make one equal?”

        If ATS cannot answer the question that demonstrates that the SJW is nothing more than an adolescent trying to prove his worth. In this case, ATS fails, and the idea of social justice fails alongside him.

  10. Democrats model themselves on totalitarian socialist/communists government.

    This SELF HATRED…is a direct copy of China’s Cultural Revolution!

    It must be FOUGHT with Maximum Effort!

  11. Universities should stay out of the individual classroom policies for a syllabus that are not related to the law. The syllabus should have the professor’s name, contact information, statements of policy regarding established legal matters, rights of the students, grading policies and the content of the class objectives. A perfunctory list of requirements and expectations.

    The administration created this dissonance and it should be no surprise that such pushback has occurred and will occur. They jeopardize finding the most talented faculty if they insist on creating a litmus test for political, philosophical or religious views. The issues they wish to highlight are eclipsed by their petty insistence that faculty abdicate educational autonomy.

    I graduated high school near an archeological dig for the mammoth hunters. I never once saw a statement of acknowledgment or tribute to them. They were replaced by subsequent tribes and later by three different European nations.

    The indigenous peoples were treated horribly and this dark period of history is a deep scar that should not be brushed aside.

    The approach the university administration has taken, in my view, is questionable.

    1. You state that indigenous peoples were treated horribly. True, of course, but the number of peoples who were treated horribly throughout history is immense. If we go back far enough in time, every person on the planet has ancestors who were treated horribly. We cannot possibly address all of history’s injustices. At best, we can learn from them and try to prevent the same thing from happening again. The UW is not even trying to learn from the past injustices. All it wants to do is virtue signal and force all its employees to do the same.

  12. As is often the case, our host has curated a specific event to draw focus to a larger issue.
    Most my see this as a free speech issue, but in goes much deeper and wider.

    Individualism. This is anathema to leftist, ie communists. The State, is the only thing that matters. Individualism is a deathnell to leftist. There can only be ONE common thought…and you will be informed on a ‘need to know basis’ . In this instance, the good Prof was informed of what his position will be. End of sencence

    Property rights. Again, ownership of property is anathema to communists. Property is too valuable for a single person to own. ONLY the collective has the wisdom to direct the industry that is the result of property ownership

    Education. Education must be directed from a central planning unit. Individuals are not equipped to understand all the nuances of proper educational goals so there must be leadership driven mandates to those tasked with working with the pre- indoctrinated.

  13. This isn’t just a free speech issue.

    It is a sanity issue.

    UW is looking as if its administrators are due to be fitted with straitjackets and retired to cozy padded rooms.

  14. How is the reaction of the university, a public university, anything but viewpoint discrimination? I would have thought that the officials of a public university would have at least taken First Amendment 101, if, for no other reason, than to avoid being sued.

  15. It should be obvious that our colleges and universities do not want to debate anything. After all, debate just brings out animosity and causes hurt feelings. And it is totally unnecessary on issues like this one which clearly have been resolved.

    This “logic” is nonsense, of course, but it has become the standard at our colleges and universities, almost all of which receive taxpayer money. It is time to shut off the money spigot, which clearly has not made our colleges and universities better.

  16. For many academic institutions the days of debating, open inquiry, disagreement or just basic free speech are gone. I don’t see how you walk back the destruction these students, faculty and deans are now imposing. It will come to a reckoning in the near future when students realize they were taught “woke” fantasies instead of basic skills like critical thinking, and are unprepared for the real world. In the ’50s we had a generation that was “beat,” or beaten down. In the next decade we’ll see a generation that is utterly devoid of historical and philosophical knowledge, and incompetent in basic academic skills. A generation of nothings.

  17. Rather than threaten to sanction Reges, why not debate him?

    Why not? Look no further than why U/W crafted their land statement in the first place. They are virtue signaling for a reason. The last thing they want is a debate potentially undermining whatever benefit their pandering was intended to produce.

  18. Lefties are often petty tyrants. Look at how some of our Lefty posters demand that Turley address certain issues – on Turley’s own blog!

    We have people of limited talent and no audience whatsoever, demanding that Turley air their views on his blog.

    Frankly that is petty bullying and tells us all that we need to know about these contemptible people.

  19. The University system appears broken. It is our (meaning conservative’s) fault, as we left the education of our children to those people, who decry critical thinking and intellectual honesty, favoring only the flavor of the day

    1. Whig – exactly. We’ve all seen the shift Left in politics in the kindergarten through graduate school educational system of America. The public schools are failing to teach reading, writing, and math, yet somehow find the time to quiz students on race and gender. All conservatives did was complain about it.

      I think they went so far that parents are pulling their kids out of schools in record numbers. Will it be enough? Everything tried so far has been ineffective.

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