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Native lands statement sparks syllabus censorship

University seeks to silence professor for “offensive” material

University of Washington iStock.com/Photo by Nikko Hellstern

Native lands statement sparks syllabus censorship

A Seattle professor who refused to include a land acknowledgment statement in his course syllabus filed a lawsuit last week claiming university administrators engaged in viewpoint discrimination against him. University of Washington administrators opened an investigation against Stuart Reges after he disagreed with the university-approved statement mentioning the Native tribes that once occupied the land on which the campus was built.

Claims by indigenous people to land may be a complex matter, yet the right of university faculty to express their views on matters of public concern is clear, contends the complaint filed on Reges’ behalf by attorneys affiliated with the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

FIRE attorneys are asking the court to bar the university from further investigating Reges, from creating “shadow” versions of his classes, and from enforcing a university policy that broadly allows it to prohibit “unacceptable” or “inappropriate” speech. They also seek compensation for damage to the professor’s reputation and mental and emotional distress caused by the investigation.

Reges, a computer science professor, first criticized the university’s version of the increasingly common land acknowledgment statement in an email to faculty in December 2021.

He then bucked college officials, including his own statement in the syllabus for an upcoming computer science course: “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.” Labor theory is rooted in Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s idea that property is owned by those who improve it.

University officials reacted swiftly, directing Reges to remove the statement in early January, a day after classes began. Magdalena Balazinska, director of the university’s Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, told Reges that the statement was “offensive” and created a “toxic environment.” When Reges refused to back down, Balazinska removed the language from the syllabus where it appeared on a class portal used by students. She also emailed students, offering three ways students could file a complaint against the professor.

In less than a week, Balazinska offered students in Reges’ class the opportunity to transfer to a class taught online by another professor. About one-third of Reges’ students transferred. He continued to teach the remaining students without incident, as he did with a spring class that ended on June 10. He remains under investigation by the university, even as he has indicated he plans to include his dissenting statement on course syllabuses for his fall 2022, winter 2023, and spring 2023 courses.

Reges remains unapologetic for his view. “There was a particular view of American history that they wanted you to affirm: that the United States is evil and that we stole land from Native tribes and so forth,” he told Fox News Digital, adding that when he took them up on the suggestion that he include a land acknowledgment statement in his syllabus, “they really went crazy.”

Even some organizations representing Native Americans agree with Reges that the increasingly common statements are merely “performative” and serve no practical purpose. Three anthropologists—two of them Native Americans—criticized the statements in an October 2021 article on The Conversation website as “little more than feel-good public gestures signaling ideological conformity.” They say the real goal should be land repatriation—something no institution has committed to.

“They are rather like ritual acts of expiatory prayer, usually recited by rote from a standardized text,” Reges wrote in a Jan. 12 essay in Quillette, an online magazine. “It doesn’t seem to matter much whether or not the speaker actually agrees with the sentiments expressed; what’s important is that the required words are spoken.”

And that requirement—that certain words be spoken—is what is offensive to the First Amendment, contends the complaint, an argument with which university spokeswoman Michelle Ma disagreed. “The university continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights, and we look forward to making that case in court,” Ma said.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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