University of Washington professor disciplined for posting a non-compliant “land acknowledgment” on his syllabus, sues the university.

July 14, 2022 • 11:45 am

While “land acknowledgments”—in which organizations admit that they’re operating on land stolen from indigenous people—are becoming quite common, I have no truck with them. They are paragons of Woke virtue signaling: an admission that one’s predecessors did wrong, but are never accompanied by reparations or attempts to give the land back. In other words, you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

Sociologists of the future will have a field day analyzing the epidemic of these claims, many of which are historically inaccurate and all of which are groveling and patronizing (i.e., land was “stolen” sequentially several times before now). At any rate, if all you do is indict your institution for stealing land, I don’t take you seriously, for it’s dead easy to remind people of a bad history without rectifying it (and you can rectify it by paying the group from which you stole the land or, better yet, giving back the damn land).

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on Stuart Reges, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington (“UW”; a public university), who struck back at land acknowledgments by posting a deviation from the officially recommended claim on his syllabus. For that he was disciplined, and now he’s suing UW for violating his freedom of speech:

Click to read:

The report:

Stuart Reges, who has taught at the university since 2004, claims in the suit that administrators are discriminating against him because of his viewpoint challenging Native Americans’ historic ownership of the land, and are using an unconstitutionally broad speech policy to pursue disciplinary action against him.

The university in 2020 included on a list of best practices for diversity a suggestion that faculty add a “land acknowledgment” to their course syllabi and offered recommended language: “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.”

This is close to being compelled speech, for if you deviate from that exact statement, you can get in trouble. And you can get in extra big trouble, as did Reges, if you make up your own land acknowledgment:

At the University of Washington, Mr. Reges instead posted near the top of his syllabus for an introductory course over the winter: “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.”

In other words, Mr. Reges says, citing philosopher John Locke’s theory that those who improve upon land own it, the Coast Salish people historically owned nearly none of the campus land.

Reges was then asked by an administrator to remove the statement from his syllabus as “offensive” and creating a “toxic environment”. (It would have made me investigate Locke.)  As it was an introductory course with several sections,the punishment opened alternative non-Reges-taught sections, erased his statement from his syllabus, and then started assembling a committee to consider disciplining him. Good old FIRE went into action:

Mr. Reges, who isn’t tenured, is represented by lawyers from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression [FIRE], a group devoted to free-speech issues on campuses and beyond. FIRE calls Washington’s policy unconstitutionally broad and vague.

“The university’s conduct here runs on a collision course with the First Amendment,” said FIRE staff attorney Katlyn Patton.

The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, seeks to have the University of Washington end any alleged retaliation against Mr. Reges, including potential discipline by the committee, and to eliminate its policy governing speech and conduct.

University spokeswoman Michelle Ma said Wednesday that the school is reviewing the complaint, and “continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights.”

FIRE’s position is the same as mine on this. (I add that I wouldn’t do what Reges did, as that kind of tomfoolery doesn’t belong in the classroom.) Once the University invites faculty to put a land acknowledgment on their syllabi, they cannot then mandate the words of that acknowledgment. Nor can they mandate how an acknowledgment is construed. Indeed, you can’t really say that Reges is wrong or is lying, for according to Locke’s theory, UW does own the land. (In contrast, if you tell lies on a syllabus or in a class, you can be disciplined). Thus I consider Reges’s statement, unwise as it was, to be permitted speech under the First Amendment.

Indeed, other faculty that deviated from the specified land acknowledgment were not disciplined, and you can guess why—because they acknowledged theft of the land. Only the one statement asserting that under a certain theory the land wasn’t stolen was the statement whose author was disciplined. I see that as a clear violation of the First Amendment, and as compelled speech: forcing faculty who make land acknowledgments to agree with a certain position about the land.

The to and fro:

The suit, filed in federal court in Seattle, seeks to have the University of Washington end any alleged retaliation against Mr. Reges, including potential discipline by the committee, and to eliminate its policy governing speech and conduct.

University spokeswoman Michelle Ma said Wednesday that the school is reviewing the complaint, and “continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights.”

. . . . Victor Balta, a spokesman for the University of Washington, said in March that faculty aren’t required to post a land acknowledgment. He added, “Commonly utilized land acknowledgments are not politicized statements about land claims or ownership nor expressions of personal viewpoints about land ownership, but are rather statements of fact.”

No, they are not statements of fact; it depends on many things like concepts of “ownership” and on historical events. Reges has a debatable concept of “ownership”, but it is debatable. Balta is trying to claim that a (useless) expression of woke ideology is the same thing as “fact.” And why are such statements on syllabi in the first place? What do they have to do with computer science, or any academic discipline? UW says these statements are part of “a list of best practices for diversity.”

If UW can invite professors to put up ideological claims on their syllabi, and then dictate how those claims are to be made, then the school is on a slippery slope towards polluting the search for truth—and the process of teaching and learning—with politics and ideology.  You can imagine the kind of claims that universities could “invite” professors to put on their syllabi—so long as they accept the correct ideology. Here’s my suggestion, appearing on signs that appear in front of some American houses. All you have to do is replace “house” with “classroom”:

As for Reges, as of yesterday it appears his disciplinary committee is still being assembled. But in some ways he’s already been disciplined, which is why FIRE has filed a lawsuit.

27 thoughts on “University of Washington professor disciplined for posting a non-compliant “land acknowledgment” on his syllabus, sues the university.

  1. This is yet another unfortunate example of the assault on standards by the totalizing and totalitarian cult of “wokeness” in the academy. One week ago Bari Weiss (on her SubStack, Common Sense) posted a fascinating and alarming essay by Joseph Manson (a tenured professor at UCLA) who is leaving his position out of dismay at the ideological capture of his and other universities by fanatics and zealots hostile to freedom of expression.

    1. I read Bari Weiss’ piece. In looking at prof manson’s cv on his website, it appears that he has published little or no research in the decade since he was tenured and promoted to professor. Rather than take his ball and go home, I suggest that he is the perfect person, an anthropologist if I recall correctly, to remain in his protected position and hold public workshops and fora at the university to present his points, invite views from persons who agree with him and those that agree with the university…perhaps some administrators will come out of their offices to present the university viewpoint….and engage in lively real-time debate. In other words promote the university as a platform for education. If he is denied use of a university facility or students exercise a hecklers’ veto on his meeting, then he has access to the dean of the faculty or provost for relief. He might even raise a recommendation of the Kalven Report or Chicago Principles be adopted by his university senate as part of a workshop. Quitting is easy, but produces nothing new of value.

      1. “In looking at prof manson’s cv on his website, it appears that he has published little or no research in the decade since he was tenured and promoted to professor.”

        No: in looking at Prof. Manson’s CV on his website, it appears that, like MANY other professors (I can think of several in my own department), he (or his department’s webmaster) has not bothered to update it in the last 9 years ( http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/jmanson/Publications_files/Manson_CV_2013.pdf ) – the fact that the document is called CV_2013 is a bit of a giveaway here. His Researchgate profile ( https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph-Manson-2 ) shows numerous articles since he was tenured, and there are articles where he is listed as author that do not appear on the Researchgate profile – see e.g. https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=TUUZTesAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate .

        In general, it’s a bad idea to try to deduce how prolific a scholar is from his department website.

        1. thank you david44. criticism accepted. i did not know that characteristic of academics’ websites. nonetheless, my main point is still that prof manson could serve ucla and its students well by providing a framework for the discussion of the issues he feels so strongly about that they would make him leave.

      2. “In looking at prof manson’s cv on his website, it appears that he has published little or no research in the decade since he was tenured and promoted to professor.”

        No: on looking at Prof. Manson’s CV on his website ( http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/jmanson/Publications_files/Manson_CV_2013.pdf ), we discover that, like many professors (including several in my own department), he (or the department webmaster) has not bothered to update his CV in the last 9 years (the fact that it’s labelled “CV 2013” is a bit of a giveaway).

        Looking at his Researchgate profile ( https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joseph-Manson-2 ) shows a lot of articles since he has achieved tenure, and there are other articles which aren’t listed on Researchgate: see e.g. https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=TUUZTesAAAAJ&view_op=list_works&sortby=pubdate .

        In general, it is a bad idea to try to assess a scholar’s research productivity from his online CV.

  2. For years, we have been treated to passionate attacks on Israel for being a “colonial” state which stole the land of a mythical “Palestine” from its rightful, indigenous inhabitants. Over these years, not a single USian opponent of this putative colonialism ever donated their own property in the US to indigenous American natives. Now, instead of doing that, these idealists can recite a Land Acknowledgement instead. How idealistic!

  3. It would be interesting to see what would happen if he posted the provided statement, and then an alternate viewpoint.

  4. I’m glad FIRE is on this.

    About 20 minutes after Ceiling Cat’s post, I got the following email from Harvard. While this strays from the topic of compelled speech in relation to land management, it does strike me as setting the stage for free-speech issues at Harvard.

    I note after going into our PeopleSoft system that I am REQUIRED to disclose my “gender marker,” whatever the hell that is. The options for gender marker are Female, Male, and Nonbinary. What’s incredibly irksome is that there is a separate box for proclaiming one’s “gender identity,” as if that is somehow different. They provide an entire page describing options one can list for “gender identity.” All biology is erased in favor of a social reconstruction. Sex is written about as the “assigned sex at birth,” as if it is the assignment not the biology that matters. And if one wants to get even more grotesquely narcissistic, one can also provide information about one’s pronouns.

    I have maintained for some time that an alien sifting through the loads of emails about diversity and equity at Harvard would mistake Harvard’s mission as Marxist social experimentation and not even detect that it is a university.

    For whatever knowing about this is worth, they are compelling me to disclose their ridiculous “gender marker.” I’d have been fine were that merely an option like the others or if they asked about sex.

    Dear Members of the Harvard Community,

    We all deserve to work and learn in an inclusive and welcoming environment—one that affirms each person’s identities and dignity. Harvard is a diverse and dynamic community of students, staff, researchers, and faculty members and our language, policies, and practices should reflect this diversity and align with our values of inclusion and equity.

    Today, we are pleased to share that Harvard Human Resources will offer Harvard employees new options that more accurately reflect our community members’ diverse gender identities, pronouns, prefixes, and gender marker. Students are already able to make these changes.

    This effort is part of a cross-University collaboration led by the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (OEDIB), in partnership with the Office for Gender Equity (OGE), Harvard Human Resources (HHR), and Harvard University Information Technology (HUIT). We are grateful to members of the community who provided vital input about how best to reflect these dimensions of identity in Harvard systems—including University-wide working group that focuses on these issues. You can read a Gazette Q&A to learn more about this work.

    We encourage all Harvard employees to review these options and utilize those that best express and reflect your identities. You can access these options by logging into PeopleSoft, and visiting: My Self-Service > My Personal Details.

    You may add, edit, or remove pronouns, prefixes, and gender identity information at any time. Gender marker is required, but there is now a nonbinary option. To get details on the new options, check out some frequently asked questions online.

    At a time when LGBTQ+ civil rights are increasingly threatened, it’s more important than ever to affirm our commitment to fully honoring the intersecting identities that make Harvard a vibrant and diverse place to work and learn. Alongside community members, our teams will continue to explore additional demographic categories for race, ethnicity, and more and we hope to update you on further progress soon.

    In Community,

    Sherri Ann Charleston (she/her)
    Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

    Manuel Cuevas-Trisán (he/him/él)
    Vice President for Human Resources

    Klara Jelinkova (she/her)
    Vice President and University Chief Information Officer

    Nicole Merhill (she/her)
    Director, Office for Gender Equity and University Title IX Coordinator

    1. “At a time when LGBTQ+ civil rights are increasingly threatened…”

      They truly do live in an alternate reality.

  5. Have the Coast Salish acknowledged what tribe they stole the land from? Or do they have proof that they were the original inhabitants?

    1. Well they (almost) certainly have an oral tradition that they were the original inhabitants, put there by some diety, and so didn’t steal the land off anyone — and if you refuse to accept that as settling the matter beyond reasonable doubt then you’re in big trouble.

  6. I’m going to make a wild guess that the people who are keenest on the acknowledgements of land being “stolen” off indigenous peoples are also keen on open borders, mass migration, with immigrants having citizenship and being able to vote, abolishing the police (such that land ownership cannot be enforced) and that they also reject the idea of property “ownership” as being capitalist.

    PS Stuart Reges’s articles on Quillette are worth a read. I’m going to make another wild guess that the fact that he has written for Quillette has bearing on the UoW going after him.

  7. I personally see no help for the Woke situation than the development of sufficient case law to put Woke administrators back in their legal lane. It would be nice if they would play by the rules and argue their positions on their merits, but they won’t- they will only impose them by force and intimidation. It’s sad it should come to this, but what the administrators are doing is illegal, unconstitutional, morally wrong, and antagonistic both to science and to the whole point of higher education. If they wish to run their own private seminary for indoctrination in Woke ideology, they should get their own funding. As it is, their co-opting of the earned credibility of institutions of education and media is simply parasitic, in a way I would argue isn’t just a figure of speech, just as “computer virus” isn’t just a figure of speech.

    I just hope that the problem won’t be solved first by those willing to solve the problem of unwanted free speech by overthrowing the US government. Something the Woke are doing all in their power to bring about. And something I will find hard to forgive if they succeed.

  8. Locke’s completely Eurocentric concept of land ownership is based upon a subjective and malleable idea of “improvements.” Samish concept of “ownersship” dissolved when European invasion reached their home, supplanting native concepts of land occupation with “American” Eurocentric concepts of ownership. So it follows then, the indigenous peoples’ claim to the land they had lived on for thousands of years must be judged according to the same standards as University of Washington ownership.
    Locke´s assertion of ownership depending upon “improvements” falls by the way, Samish or other indigenous peoples may well consider the buildings and walkways and manicured lawns as damage to the forest that was here for so many centuries.

  9. As a (traditional, liberal) lifelong leftie the patronizing virtue signaling uselessness of Land Acknowledgements, and all the gender stupidities…. really irritate me. In the last 5 years or so I felt like non-crazy, secular conservatives must have felt when the MAGA train rolled into town.
    D.A.
    NYC

  10. It’s hard to take this crap anymore. Sadly, my wife is a University of Washington retiree. We’re both embarrassed that a great University would try to compel speech. And what speech?! Since the recommended pronouncement does not in any way help the Coast Salish peoples, how can it be anything other than pretending to care for purposes of self-satisfaction. If you truly feel guilt, pay rent, pay reparations, pay for the land, or give it back. Anything less is performance art.

    I’m so glad that the victim is suing the university. Making them pay to defend compelled speech will cost them some coin. The more who lawsuits the better. Another act of defiance would be for professors to take their talents elsewhere. Loss of revenue and loss of reputation will eventually take its toll and force these institutions either to change their policies or decline to obscurity.

  11. I’m an Affiliate Professor here at the University of Washington, and I agree with the University on this. The issue of Europeans having encroached on land previously occupied by the Salish Tribes is a big deal here in Seattle. I think Professor Reges is being a jerk. The infliction of Europeans on those living here before them is strewn with depravity. The acknowledgement of our expropriations is a small thing of what we have done. Professor Reges is invoking a European view of the use of the Pacific Northwest that was not in their vocabulary. Every time I’m at the Seattle Symphony where they begin the concert with the invocation about who lived on the land we are now experiencing Beethoven, I’m reminded of what we have erased by our occupation.

    1. If you feel so terrible about your occupation, why don’t you move back to the country of your ancestors, and donate your house or apartment to a member of the Salish Tribes?
      Seriously, the word “we” is doing some heavy lifting in your post. I am fairly sure that you, professor, did not expel any Salish from their lands. Neither did anyone you know. Neither, I’d bet, did the ancestors of most people you know, seeing how most Europeans only came to the US after 1850 or so. Identifying yourself and other white people with the people who expropriated the native Americans, and identifying the Native Americans living today with the people who had their lands expropriated, is your choice, and I don’t think it carries very far.

    2. The acknowledgement of our expropriations is a small thing of what we have done.

      Yes, it is a very small thing. But when you say “our” you don’t mean that: you mean your ancestors (or the ancestors of some other white people). And the land wasn’t stolen from anybody who is alive today.

      Given the fact that nobody alive today is guilty of the land theft and nobody alive today is the victim of the land theft and nobody seems to be enthusiastic about giving the land back to the descendants of the victims, these land acknowledgements are useless virtue signalling. What good do they do anybody?

      I agree that Reges is a bit of a jerk though.

    3. Reges is a jerk, but so is the university to pressure their staff to make sanctimonius ritualized statements about past crimes that add insult to injury, as they do nothing to redress the crime, all within an moralistic ideology that suffers from double standards and internal contradictions galore and has nothing to do with the function of a university.

      1. “Has nothing to do with the function of a university.”

        Yes this exactly. It’s the whole point of Kalven.

        1. And exactly the point Stuart Reges is making, with his provocative
          version of the Land Acknowledgement ritual. I am struck by two aspects of the UW’s pushing this ritual. (1) The UW is compelling a particularly vacuous speech, an apology that accomplishes nothing.
          (2) Does the apology extend to UW hospital, and to the biomedical advances (kidney dialysis, for one of many examples) developed by
          UW med school researchers? Would humanity be better off if this space were still forest in which the only human activities were hunting/gathering by the indigenous Salish population?

  12. Locke’s theory that those who improve upon land own it, the Coast Salish people historically owned nearly none of the campus land.

    I assume that Prof (?) Reges has the wounds from the attacks upon him by the saber-tooth cats and cave sloths which “peopled” the area in question before the first humans arrived; which humans then “improved” the land by exterminating most of the “interesting times” animal life. Slime moulds and ducks excepted.
    Of course, the megafauna-killers were quite likely humans with no significant genetic linkage to the residents of the area when Europeans first started writing names in Latin script ; there was quite likely a sequence of conquests of the area in prehistoric times. But, no written record, no legal standing?

  13. Much of this nonsense is the result of the rise and bloating of a well-paid and self-serving diversocracy. As long as it is in ascendance, it will have no interest in solving any of the many and multiplying identity issues it supposedly addresses, but actually promulgates. As of 2021, the University of Michigan had 163 diversity officers. Much of their duty, I assume is to monitor the compelled DEI statements of cowed faculty.

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