“Performative Acts of Conformity”: Professor Sues University of Washington Over Land Acknowledgment Statement

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).


75 thoughts on ““Performative Acts of Conformity”: Professor Sues University of Washington Over Land Acknowledgment Statement”

  1. The truth of land ownership is simple. Might makes right. There is ownership by right of conquest. Many wars changed national boundaries.
    There is ownership by possession. Having the might to fight off would-be invaders, otherwise see above.
    Ancestral possession is moot. I have ancestors who lived in Ireland, Germany, Russia and Africa. Do I have any claim due to my ancestry? Does anyone?

  2. This contretemps has been a moot point for only 165 years. I don’t know why we are wasting time and energy on this issue. The University should be especially embarrassed by its quivering lower lip virtue-signally but ultimately meaningless statement. The theory put forward by the professor while interesting clearly did not address the very practical concerns of conflict upper most in the mind of then Governor Stevens. By the 1855 treaty of Point Elliot, the various Salish tribes in Western Washington ceded any interest in the land on which the University of Washington sits. Article 1: “The said tribes and bands of Indians hereby cede, relinquish, and convey to the United States all their right, title, and interest in and to the lands and country occupied by them, bounded and described as follows …”. This treaty still has tremendous value as it is the instrument by which the Indians have successfully asserted their multi-million dollar fishing rights.

  3. How many here are reading Turley’s magnum opus on Free Speech?


    I’m half way through. So far, much of it just restates (and references many links to) his writings on his blog. If some academics follow those links, they will discover Turley’s “blog family.” So let’s all behave and raise the level of discourse here so we don’t embarrass Turley when our betters peruse our comments. With any luck, his law review article will lead to a few academics joining our family. God knows, we could use them…

  4. Ray,

    Conservatives love and respect for the police was put on full display on 1/6….

    1. ~half of Americans voted for Trump, and tens of thousands marched in his name peacefully. A very few became riotous and were arrested. Most of those arrested did nothing wrong, In other words, we had a tiny number of people who acted disrespectfully, and we are not sure if most of those were guilty. On the other hand, the left murdered up to 4 protestors that day and helped incite the riot.

      I’d say the love and respect for police on the right is quite high, while the left calls them pigs, assaults, and kills them. You are an A$$, but who doesn’t know that?

    2. Jeff–I just love your arguments. They are so–so–so simple. Yes, that’s the word I was looking for. Simple. And predictable.

      1. Booglheim,

        I try so people don’t have to strain themselves to understand.

        “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.

        Albert Einstein

  5. You would think the Left in Washington State, at a minimum Seattle, would have learned that their religious Woke dogmas have caused grave economic harm, worsened public safety, and damaged their reputation. Nope. Talk about cultists.

    One wonders in what parts of Seattle the UW admins live.

    “Seattle mayor considers incentives for police amid officer shortage”
    The city has lost more than 400 police officers over the past 2 ½ years, which Harrell’s office said has led to the point “where essential services cannot be delivered promptly and effectively.”

    1. Estovir,

      You are so correct. Why should anyone put their life on the line on a daily basis as a law enforcement officer when the local prosecutors refuse to prosecute crime and the local citizens despise you [the police]…until, of course, they need you to protect them. Of course, once the moment of need passes you are once again despised.

  6. Trying as I might to understand the stupidity of denizens of Woke Land, I reasoned the highway of life I’m on, has more than one lane, and when encountering any divergent sign highlighting this way to INANE, I should pass on by knowing that stupidity can be contagious.

    I then came to conclude that WOKE is an inappropriate identifier for the imbecile’s that reside in Woke Land. More appropriate description of the Woke Land denizens would be ‘THE INTOLERANTS’ with a motto “We see nothing, hear nothing and speak nothing other than our boorish gibberish”.

    “It takes little talent to see clearly what lies under one’s nose, a good deal of it to know in which direction to point that organ.” W.H. Auden ‘Dyer’s Hand’.

  7. I have American Indian ancestors. Ozage. So what? I’m not entitled to land stolen from them.

  8. Balazinsky’s actions against the professor without a doubt has created a toxic environment at the University.

  9. I love the stories and cultural history of the Salish.

    I also think that Native Americans are fully American. The Picts and the Celts cannot demand the “return” of land in Great Britain. The Salish carved out territory at the expense of local tribes, and they held it. Later, a stronger European American tribe carved out land, and they held it. Instead of treating Native Americans as separate, with separate sovereignty, they should be treated as any other American of any other ancestry. Keep the language, culture, histories, and other aspects alive. But Native Americans are first and foremost American. This is why they serve in wars, to great distinction, such as the Code Talkers.

    Native Americans don’t get to keep what Europeans brought, but demand the United States give all the land back. You don’t see Native Tribes returning land they now hold to tribes who used to hold it. One way for thee, another for me? – the wheel, electricity, horses, cars, plans, trains, modern medicine, the concept of land deeds in which when you buy a house, your neighbor cannot take it from you even if he’s stronger. A Crow who lives in the suburbs does not need to be concerned that a Sioux who lives next door might take it. The US banned slavery, which had been a tradition in Native tribes, just as anywhere else on Earth.

    If the United States did self destruct, commit suicide, and decide that all US land was going to be given back to the Native Tribes, and everyone of ancestry not Native American would have to relocate, then who gets that land? We could wipe out every building, rip up all electrical lines, take all guns, all steel, glass, and electronics, demolish everything, and put it back to a state prior to 1492. Tribes would go back to fighting with each other over land, until about 8 days later when China invades and conquers it all.

    Native Americans should fully embrace their place as fellow, not separate, Americans. They have traditions and languages to keep alive, as the Irish keep Gaelic. But we are all one people.

  10. Land acknowledgments are forced speech, and inaccurate.

    Native American tribes took land from each other. There were no land deeds a thousand years ago. Your tribe held land until and unless a stronger tribe took it from you, or resources depleted and you moved on. Land didn’t “belong” to any particular tribe. A tribe lived there for a time, and another tribe lived there before.

    There is a difference between learning our history, including the archaeology of the presence of paleolithic through modern native tribes in a nation. Going further than that, and declaring that the last tribe to hold land before European Americans had it, somehow became the “real” owners through perpetuity is spurious.

    Who owns the Black Hills? South Dakota, Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho, the Crow, or the ones before?

    Who should get lucrative Indian Gaming licenses? The tribe living there right at that moment, or the tribe(s) who lived on that spot of land prior? How can it not be a Civil Rights violation for gaming to be legal for a particular tribe to host, but illegal for others based on race?

  11. The Coastal Salish lived on the coast and only a long house distance inland. Not much of the University of Washington is that close to even Lake Washington.

    So, on the facts, this unfortunately non-professor is right.

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