Campus Free Speech

Professor Sues University of Washington Over 'Land Acknowledgment' Investigation

Stuart Reges placed a land acknowledgment in his syllabus. Just not the one his university wanted.


When Stuart Reges, a University of Washington computer science professor, was directed to place a land acknowledgment in his syllabus, he wrote one of his own. That land acknowledgment may very well get him fired.

For the fall 2021 semester, the university's computer science department recommended that professors place a land acknowledgment in their syllabi. On a list of syllabus "best practices," administrators gave the following language as a template: "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."

Reges has been an outspoken advocate—and occasional provocateur—for free speech during his long career in academia. "I've said things you're not supposed to say. I was openly gay in 1979 when it was not popular to be openly gay. I talked about the war on drugs in the early 90s and got fired from Stanford for that," Reges told the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. "And for the past four or five years, I've been dealing with what I call the equity agenda and fighting back against that. So I took the opportunity to make a political statement I know they wouldn't be happy with."

Seeing an opportunity, Reges wrote his own land acknowledgment. He wrote, "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."

Administrators quickly retaliated, calling the statement "offensive" and arguing that it would create a "toxic environment." Administrators removed the land acknowledgment from the syllabus posted on Reges' course website. When Reges replaced the new file with his original syllabus, university officials "set the file protection so that I could not change it [back]." Administrators also created an alternative "shadow" section of his course, taught by another professor using recorded lectures. Approximately 30 percent of Reges' students switched into this alternative section.

In an email to Reges, the director of the engineering school, Magdalena Balazinska, claimed that the problem wasn't Reges' opinion, it was that he used language outside the exact phrasing recommended by the University.

Balazinska wrote that she would "ask any instructor who uses a land acknowledgment other than the [University of Washington] land acknowledgment to remove or replace it." However, this did not happen. As Reges' lawsuit alleges, "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."

After Reges announced his intention to put the "land acknowledgment" in his syllabus for the spring 2022 semester, administrators opened an investigation against him for alleged violations of university anti-harassment policies. The investigation has gone on for over 130 days and may result in Reges' termination.

On Wednesday, Reges filed a lawsuit against the University of Washington. He claims that the University is violating his First Amendment rights by engaging in a retaliatory investigation of him under an overly broad "harassment" policy.

Reges is backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonpartisan First Amendment rights organization that has emerged as a consistent player in campus free speech fights, defending students and faculty who are disciplined, rebuked, or terminated for protected speech.

"This is important for protecting faculty rights because faculty necessarily speak on public issues as part of their teaching, research, and publication," FIRE Attorney Josh Bleisch tells Reason. "Prof. Reges decided to file this lawsuit in order to reaffirm that when public university faculty speak on controversial public issues, that speech is protected even when that speech is part of their teaching or other job duties."

The university punished Reges for his land acknowledgment but not other professors who offered their own personalized land acknowledgments. According to FIRE, those professors' statements toed the university's party line. So, it seems the university discriminated against Reges on the basis of his political viewpoint—an action clearly prohibited under the First Amendment.

Further, university administrators also face scrutiny for their lengthy investigation of Reges for violating a bafflingly broad anti-harassment rule. The rule, Executive Order 31, allows the university to "discipline or take appropriate corrective action for any conduct that is deemed unacceptable or inappropriate, regardless of whether the conduct rises to the level of unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation."

The University of Washington, as a public institution, is bound to uphold the First Amendment in its speech policies. Executive Order 31 is profoundly restrictive of student and faculty speech. In Reges' case, it is being used as a pretense to steamroll his constitutional rights.

When public universities take sides on controversial political issues—and expect their faculty to do the same—one consequence is trampled constitutional rights. As FIRE lawyer Katlyn Patton urges, the value of land acknowledgments "is a topic that's up for debate. But faculty rights are not up for debate."