We previously discussed the case of Professor Stuart Reges who was disciplined because he refused to post the school’s “land acknowledgment” and instead posted an alternative statement. Professor Reges is now suing and the case could bring great benefits for free speech at this and other universities. Professor Reges has declared “Land acknowledgments are performative acts of conformity that should be resisted, even if it lands you in court.”
The defendants include Nancy Allbritton, the Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington, Magdalena Balazinska, Director of the Allen School, UW President Ana Mari Cauce, and the Allen School’s Vice Director Dan Grossman.
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. Reges declared that these tribes indigenous people “can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land and that the claim of the university land was not sufficiently used or developed to bestow a claim upon the Coast Salish people. That acknowledged group is a broad collection of different groups with ethnic or linguistic associations.
In his lawsuit, Professor Reges says that, after he stated his own views, the university moved against him.
“On January 4, 2022, the day after Professor Reges’s Computer Science and Engineering 143 class met for the first time, Defendant [Magdalena] Balazinska, Director of the Allen School, sent Professor Reges an email ordering him to remove the statement from his syllabus because it was ‘offensive’ and created a ‘toxic environment.’”
Reges noted that the university allowed other professors “to include modified statements in their syllabi that were more consistent with the University’s recommended statement.” The operative point is that “other faculty at the Allen School continue to include land acknowledgment statements in their syllabi that differ from the University’s own statement, so long as they express a viewpoint consistent with the University’s recommended version.”
According to the complaint, Balazinska then allegedly removed his dissenting statement and the university then emailed his students offering an apology for their professor’s “offensive” land acknowledgment opinion and advising them on “three ways students could file complaints against” him. The students were later allegedly told by Balazinska that, according to the complaint, “all students in Professor Reges’s Computer Science and Engineering 143 class section [can] switch into a new ‘shadow’ class section, which would meet at the same time as Professor Reges’s class section.”
Reges notes that the alternative class was a series of recorded lectures, but viewed as a reasonable alternative to being in a class with a professor with a dissenting view on land acknowledgements. Some 170 out of his 500 students took the alternative course.
One notable issue is the status of the proceedings. The complaint states that a disciplinary committee is still considering “whether to further punish or even terminate Professor Reges because of the views he expressed in his dissenting statement” based on alleged violations of various university policies.
The complaint also notes that, while Reges continues to teach, his current course schedule is “the lightest teaching load Professor Reges has ever been assigned.”
I recently wrote how universities can use course assignments and other collateral means to isolate dissenting professors in an effort to get them to resign. This is particularly the case with tenured faculty.
For many of us in teaching, these cancel campaigns have become a constant, looming threat. There have been drives to fire or discipline faculty who hold dissenting views on issues ranging from racial justice to police abuse to transgender identification to gender statements to pronoun usage to native-land acknowledgment. This includes a recent campaign at Georgetown that successfully secured a law professor’s resignation over a tweet.
Today, a palpable level of fear and intimidation exists among many faculty members that they could be the next target of one of these campaigns. Most professors are not protected by tenure, and universities can cite other reasons for not renewing their contracts.
The percentage of tenured professors has been declining for half a century. Roughly three of four faculty today are what are called “contingent faculty,” or faculty who work contract to contract.
The problem is that this contingency often seems to depend upon an adherence to a new orthodoxy on racial justice, police abuse, gender identification and other issues.
The Reges case could prove a major challenge to that orthodoxy. The actions of the university should have been condemned by all members of faculty at the university as an attack on academic freedom and the freedom of speech regardless of how they feel about land acknowledgement. The silence, however, is a reflection of how much has changed in higher education. It is the subject of my recent publication in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. The article entitled “Harm and Hegemony: The Decline of Free Speech in the United States.”
To their great credit, the lawsuit is being handled by the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE).