Washington professor sues university claiming First Amendment violation
A professor from the University of Washington is suing his college claiming the school violated his First Amendment rights and then retaliated against him. Professor Stuart Reges is a faculty member at the university’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, and his case revolves around a school policy to acknowledge that the campus is on what they call occupied indigenous land.
The school wanted his syllabus to state, “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the charred waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.”
Professor Reges suggested the statement, “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.”
According to the court filing, the director of the Allen School described that syllabus statement as “offensive” and said it created a “toxic environment.”
The director removed that language from the syllabus, apologized to students, informed them on how to file a complaint against the professor, and claimed professor Reges was “causing a disruption to instruction in class.”
The school then created another Computer Science and Engineering course that met at the exact same time as professor Regus’ and students were told they could transfer into that class. Approximately 30% of the students left, 70% remained.
Professor Reges joined Straight Arrow News political correspondent Ray Bogan to discuss his case.
The first question I want to cover is the theory you use to determine the Coast Salish people have no claim to that property, and that is philosopher John Locke’s labor theory of property under which ownership derives from improving the land. Why did you use that theory?
Well, it’s another view of property ownership, there’s a lot of views of what gives one ownership over land. Locke had a theory that when you mix your labor with the land, like if you grow crops on land, then you come to own that land. And so I was basically just proposing a different viewpoint.
So to that point, according to the suit, other professors were allowed to modify the college’s syllabus language, but yours was a modification, but it went against the school’s message. So why is it in your opinion, important for students to hear dissenting opinions throughout their education?
Well, I think that our history with American Indian tribes is very complex, it’s very difficult to turn it into a single sentence. And I think the great sin I committed is that I didn’t express a sense of guilt, you know that the land had been stolen. This is the problem with my version of the land acknowledgement.
Now, there’s an argument to be made that you teach a computer science class and this type of a statement regarding the University of Washington and its history on indigenous land, has no business being in a computer science class because it has nothing to do with computer science. But if we flip that argument, I just want to ask you, why would you then go and change the language? If language like this has no place in your class, if it could potentially offend a student who may have indigenous heritage? I mean, after all, 30% of the students did leave your course when they had the opportunity.
Well, I think it doesn’t belong on the syllabus, but none of them belong on the syllabus. So it was a kind of protest on my part to include this version of the land acknowledgement. I think that if you’re going to encourage faculty to express opinions about this, you have to allow the full range of opinions. I’m pushing back against what I see as a movement to limit the range of acceptable ideas on campus. There are activists who want to shut down conservative libertarian voices, and so I wanted to offer a different view.
Now, based on your court filings, you want compensatory damages from the school and a ruling from the court that the defendants retaliated against you for protected free speech in violation of your first amendment rights. If you get that ruling, what do you ultimately hope it brings you?
Well, the most important part to me is that they get rid of this thing that’s known as Executive Order 31. That says that you have to be careful not to upset any undergraduates on campus otherwise you can be punished. I think that’s a very dangerous principle. And I think it’s gonna particularly harm conservative faculty.
There’s a new conservative majority on the Supreme Court. And some people have been open about the fact that they think cases, maybe a case just like this one, has a better chance of getting a favorable ruling because of that conservative majority. Do you hope this case goes up that high? Have you taken that into account at all as this goes through the court system?
I would prefer that it gets settled at a lower level, because I think it’s a very straightforward case. But if it went all the way to the Supreme Court, I think it would be worth doing, because this is happening on campuses across the country, that there are people who are trying to silence conservative voices. And so I think this is a very important fight.