LAWSUIT: Professor sues University of Washington after admins punish him for ‘inappropriate’ opinion

July 13, 2022
  • When the professor didn’t parrot UW’s statement acknowledging indigenous ties to campus land, administrators launched an investigation and created a ‘shadow course’ to shield students from his opinion
  • Today is day 133 of the investigation, as professor awaits possible further punishment or termination for his expression
  • Universities can’t encourage professors to wade into controversial subjects, then punish professors for disagreeing with the administration

SEATTLE, July 13, 2022 — When Professor Stuart Reges challenged the University of Washington’s position on land acknowledgements, administrators punished him, undermining his academic freedom. Today, backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Reges sued the university to vindicate his First Amendment right to express his opinion — even if it differs from the party line.

Colleges increasingly promote land acknowledgment statements that recognize indigenous ties to the land on which a college sits. On a list of syllabus “best practices,” UW’s computer science department encourages professors to include such a statement and suggests using language developed by the university’s diversity office “to acknowledge that our campus sits on occupied land.” The fact that the statement could be adapted seemed clear — until Reges wrote one that administrators did not like.

“University administrators turned me into a pariah on campus because I included a land acknowledgment that wasn’t sufficiently progressive for them,” said Reges. “Land acknowledgments are performative acts of conformity that should be resisted, even if it lands you in court. I am pleased that FIRE joined with me to fight back against University of Washington’s illegal viewpoint discrimination.”

COURTESY PHOTOS FOR MEDIA USE

On Dec. 8, 2021, Reges criticized land acknowledgment statements in an email to faculty, and on Jan. 3, he included a modified version of UW’s example statement in his syllabus: “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.” Reges’s statement was a nod to John Locke’s philosophical theory that property rights are established by labor.

On Jan. 4, the director of the computer science department, Magdalena Balazinska, ordered Reges to immediately remove his modified statement from his syllabus, labeling it “inappropriate” and “offensive,” and declaring that it created “a toxic environment” in the course. Reges refused because Balazinska’s demand was viewpoint discriminatory — other computer science professors included their own land acknowledgments on their syllabi. But UW did not investigate or punish them because those statements, unlike Reges’s, were consistent with the university’s viewpoint. 

The university launched an official investigation into Reges for allegedly violating UW’s unconstitutionally overbroad harassment policy. This investigation has now dragged on for over four months. Balazinska also created a competing section of Reges’s course (featuring pre-recorded lectures by another professor) so students wouldn’t have to take a computer science class from someone who didn’t parrot the university’s preferred opinions. 

“It’s ironic that a university whose motto is ‘let there be light’ would shepherd students into a shadow course to shield them from a professor’s opinion,” said FIRE attorney Katlyn Patton. “If UW encourages professors to take a political stance on their syllabi, it cannot punish those professors who diverge from the school’s pre-approved stance. At UW, the message to faculty is clear: Toe the party line or say goodbye to your students.”

As a public institution bound by the First Amendment, UW must uphold its professors’ right to free speech and cannot discriminate against them based on viewpoint. UW is free to encourage its faculty to include land acknowledgment statements in their syllabi, and even to suggest examples, but it may not mandate that they either use only approved statements or remain silent on the issue under threat of discipline.

UW ignored FIRE’s demands that the university protect the expressive freedoms of its faculty members. 

“UW accused Reges of creating a ‘toxic environment,’ but the university is poisoning the free exchange of ideas,” said FIRE attorney Josh Bleisch. “We’re taking UW to court so that Reges and other faculty can share their views on important issues without fear of reprisal.”

Robert A. Bouvatte, Jr. of Robert A. Bouvatte, PLLC is serving as local counsel for the lawsuit.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought — the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE recognizes that colleges and universities play a vital role in preserving free thought within a free society. To this end, we place a special emphasis on defending the individual rights of students and faculty members on our nation’s campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.

CONTACT:

Katie Kortepeter, Media Relations Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org


Schools:  University of Washington

Cases:  University of Washington: Professor Punished for Expressing Dissenting Opinion