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Reges’ land acknowledgement creates conversation around free speech rights

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In early January, Stuart Reges, a principal lecturer for the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, included a land acknowledgement in his syllabus for CSE 143: Computer Programming II that critiqued the idea of land acknowledgements. 

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 wrote in place of a standard land acknowledgement.

After several students complained, Magdalena Balzinska, director and professor at the Allen School, emailed Reges asking him to take down the acknowledgement. 

After Reges refused, Allen School administration expressed disapproval and took the syllabus down themselves, which Reges suggested was a violation of his freedom of speech, prompting a broader conversation on the nature and potential limitations of free speech, especially around conservative issues on college campuses. 

“The statement Stuart Reges included in his syllabus was inappropriate, offensive, and not relevant to the content of the course he teaches,” Balzinka wrote in an email. “The Allen School and the UW reserve the right to amend academic materials in this way, as the syllabus for an intro to computer programming course is not the appropriate place or manner for a debate about land acknowledgements”

In response to the takedown, Reges partnered with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), to advocate against UW on the issue. The story was picked up by many conservative media outlets, from local blogs to Fox News

Reges expressed his opinions against land acknowledgements, deeming the practice a manifestation of liberal ideology inappropriately promoted within education. By not including one, he said he was standing up for conservative values. 

“I would say that I think that it's a form of activism,” Reges said. “I wish that we didn't do any acknowledgments at all — I don't like them. But, if we're going to do them, then we should allow a range of opinions to be expressed.”

Reges took issue with what he saw was an example of the UW administration’s bias against conservative thought. 

“[Administration] said at a faculty meeting that a syllabus is not a place to include a political statement,” Reges said. “So that's why they say that what I did is inappropriate. But then how is it appropriate to include this other version of the land acknowledgement? Why is it OK to include this version, but not mine? That's the crux of the First Amendment issue here.”

Much of the media backlash has focused on this perceived issue of a First Amendment violation. 

“Frankly, I would not have posted this statement because I find it gratuitous and peevish as part of a syllabus,” Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor from George Washington University, wrote in a blog post on the story. “However, ordering a faculty member to remove such a statement (after encouraging the inclusion of the official statement) is deeply concerning.”

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While instructors are completely protected in their free speech and political opinion in their daily life, through their employment through the university, the law treats speech differently.  

“The university is the one that holds the First Amendment,” Theodore Myhre, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law, said. “Its participants — the people who are part of the university — actually don't hold the First Amendment right. You do in your private capacity, but you do not hold it in your role as a member of the university community.”

Campus conservatives, when this subject has been broached in the past, cited the fact that liberal opinions are often stated during class without reaction from the administration. However, Myhre said, the university is able to step in and limit speech around issues that “disrupt the learning environment.”

“The faculty is not squashing free speech,” Myhre said. “The faculty is actually trying to protect and empower the learning environment to be productive and effective.”

Though the law may support the university’s action in this specific context, the discourse over the expression of conservative and liberal beliefs on campus is far from over. Reges is interested in investigating the social limitations around discussing conservative beliefs in the predominantly liberal setting of UW. 

“Part of what I'm exploring is, is the University of Washington more interested in truth or more interested in social justice?” Reges said.

Mhyre and Reges both expressed interest in stepping away from the politicization in public debate and developing an environment to discuss a variety of viewpoints. 

“We're really supposed to be learning how to take things from different perspectives and to give each other the grace to debate, not to posture and not to be angry — to actually think and work it out,” Myhre said. “It would be way better if students and faculty and administration approach things as cooperative problem solvers rather than as opponents”.

Reges said that, ultimately, his goal was to facilitate conversations in which anyone was able to speak up and share their opinion. 

“I often get students who say, ‘I love being able to have conversations … that I don't have on campus elsewhere’ [and that they] don't get to talk about this anywhere else,” Reges said. “I think it can be done.”

Reach contributing writer Isabelle Spence at Twitter: @isabelleleahs

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