(Courtesy of FIRE)

He Made a Joke About Land Acknowledgements. Then the Trouble Began.

When Professor Stuart Reges exercised his free speech rights, the University of Washington retaliated. So we're suing the school.

Stuart Reges is no stranger to controversy. In the 1980s, he risked his career as a budding academic by writing about being openly gay. Then, as lecturer at Stanford in the 1990s, he bucked the status quo by protesting the war on drugs. (Bob Martinez, then the national drug czar, wrote a letter to Stanford urging the school to penalize him.) Reges once wrote a piece called “Why Women Don’t Code” for Quillette and you can read a poem on his website titled “Fag Talk.” You get the picture.

Reges is an now a professor of computer science at the University of Washington’s Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, the UW published a best practices document encouraging faculty to include an “Indigenous Land Acknowledgment Statement” on their syllabi. The statement, which has been more prevalent in left-leaning institutions in recent years, is meant to acknowledge the historic presence of indigenous people on the land where the university sits.

Professor Reges doesn’t think highly of these statements. “Land acknowledgments are performative acts of conformity that should be resisted,” he said.

So last school year, instead of reprinting the university-approved 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 Suqaumish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations”—Reges constructed his own disclaimer. 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.” This appeared on his syllabus for a computer programming course he was teaching. 

Unsurprisingly, university administrators were not pleased with Reges’s take, which questions the very presupposition of the approved statement. But rather than respect his academic freedom—after all, the land acknowledgement is supposedly only a suggestion—the school retaliated.

The university unilaterally uploaded a censored version of Reges’s syllabus without any acknowledgment whatsoever and locked him from making further changes to it. Then the school established a competing class section at the eleventh hour to siphon students away from his course. Finally, the UW launched an investigation of Reges—which began four months ago and continues to this day—over his alleged violation of policies prohibiting speech deemed “unacceptable or inappropriate,” ensuring that he languishes under the threat of further punishment or dismissal.

While Reges is still teaching today, the university has harmed his ability to do his job effectively. “It is difficult to go to work every day knowing the allegations against me are unresolved, that I could ultimately be fired,” he said. 

This month, we helped Reges file a lawsuit against the UW’s administrators to ensure that he and all other professors can cut their strings and not be their institutions’ puppets. In it, we argue that once invited to speak on a controversial public issue, universities cannot mandate the viewpoint their faculty members take on that issue.

We work for FIRE, and our organization has been tracking the crisis of academic freedom on campus for 22 years. Since 2015, more than 700 scholars have been targeted for their words or scholarship; 127 of them have been terminated, 113 suspended, 61 censored, 49 resigned, and 34 demoted. And those are just the cases we have been alerted to. Untold numbers of students have been punished and silenced too.

This threat comes from both the left and the right. Two-thirds of sanction attempts from the left of the professor result in some form of sanction. The same is true for 42% of attempts from the right of wherever the professor is politically. Regardless of the direction of the attack on free speech—from a nine-month investigation for criticizing a diversity training at Lake Washington Institute of Technology, to a suspension for referencing slurs in a redacted form on a civil procedure exam at the University of Illinois Chicago, to a termination for joking that Iran should bomb the Kardashian residence at Babson College—the end-result is invariably nasty for any professor who dares to dissent. We are living through a crisis of academic freedom on campus unparalleled since the Red Scare of the 1950s.

Critics will say that cases like Reges’s are unfortunate but rare, dismissing the signs of a deteriorating campus climate for free speech: Among them, the secret hearings exposed by Anne Appelbaum and Laura Kipnis; the already incredibly low amount of viewpoint diversity at many schools; and the fact that students and professors alike report in poll after poll that they are afraid to speak their minds. They’ll say that Reges is just putting his thumb in the eye of his employer, and that while it might not be right that he’s being investigated, there’s no point in making a fuss. 

So why die on this hill? Why take up Reges’s case? 

The fact is that playful, provocative, and even subversive engagement with challenging ideas was once expected, if not encouraged, in American educational institutions. Whereas thought experimentation, devil’s advocacy, and counterfactuals were previously tools to gain more knowledge, now those things are cast as misguided or even dangerous. Now, at the UW, and at so many other schools across the country, professors are expected to mouth the opinions stamped with the approval of a bureaucratic monolith of administrators.

Put simply: to win the case against the UW would be a victory not just for academic freedom, but also for the ideal of an open society where dissent is encouraged and speech codes are forbidden. 

But we can’t do it alone. Our work depends on courageous students, faculty, alumni, and concerned citizens who are willing to take a public stand against the culture of censorship.

So many people ask us what they can do to help people like Stuart Reges and all the other people who have been caught on the wrong side of the new social orthodoxy. Here’s what you can do: Write to the president of your alma mater, or to your children or grandchildren’s university. Go straight to the university leadership and demand that schools abandon their speech codes and stand up for the free speech rights of students and faculty. Tell them they must adopt an academic freedom statement, like the Chicago statement, to ensure that faculty and students enjoy expressive rights. And if you donate to your alma mater, tell them you will withhold your hard-earned money unless they uphold these free speech ideals.

Despite our best efforts, some colleges may be too far gone—including Yale, which won our “Lifetime Censorship Award” this year. That’s why part of the solution must lie in competing models: The upstart University of Austin, Minerva University in San Francisco, and Ralston College in Savannah are a good start, but we still need more—many more—experiments to challenge the bloated, expensive, conformist and ever-growing administrative university.

The very spirit of experimentation and exploration so sorely lacking at universities is the key to fixing what’s gone wrong. To do that takes intellectual courage and humility. It takes a willingness to be criticized, to be challenged, and even to be proven wrong. Nobody ever said free speech comes without consequences, but then, of course, neither does censorship. At the end of the day, protecting freedom ensures that people, not institutions, can determine the answers to huge societal questions for themselves, living lives that align with their own consciences.

To hear more about the history of free speech and the battle to protect “the eternally radical idea” listen to our most recent episode of Honestly with FIRE President Greg Lukianoff:

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