Computer science lecturer sues Univ. of Wash. leaders over

Stuart Reges. (UW Photo)

A lecturer at the University of Washington is suing university leaders over his free speech rights, claiming he was made “a pariah” for a statement he made about Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples in a syllabus for a computer science course.

The UW’s computer science department suggests that faculty include an indigenous land acknowledgement on syllabi. Such acknowledgements are becoming increasingly common in regional corporate and government events and publications.

Stuart Reges, a UW teaching professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science, came up with his own statement for a Computer Programming II class this past winter, according to the lawsuit: “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.”

Allen School director Magdalena Balazinska — who is named as a defendant — told Reges in an email to take down the statement, according to the lawsuit, saying it was “inappropriate” and “offensive.”

The suit, filed by Reges and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), alleges that university leaders discriminated against Reges by subjecting him to a disciplinary investigation after he insisted he had a right to retain the statement. The UW also allegedly created a separate “shadow” class for students taught by a different instructor.

Reges, who has been a UW instructor since 2004, has a first amendment right to free speech on the university campus, the lawsuit asserts.

The Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. (Allen School Photo)

The suit aims to stop alleged retaliation against Reges for his “protected academic speech” and to eliminate UW policy governing faculty expression which it said is overbroad and vague because of language regulating “unacceptable or inappropriate” speech and conduct.

Defendants in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Seattle, are Balazinska, UW president Ana Mari Cauce, Allen School vice director Dan Grossman, and Nancy Allbritton, dean of the College of Engineering.

“University administrators turned me into a pariah on campus because I included a land acknowledgment that wasn’t sufficiently progressive for them,” said Reges in a press release issued Wednesday by FIRE, a nonprofit that supports free speech on campuses and elsewhere. “Land acknowledgments are performative acts of conformity that should be resisted, even if it lands you in court,” added Reges.

The UW is reviewing the complaint, according to a spokesperson. “The university continues to assert that it hasn’t violated Stuart Reges’ First Amendment rights and we look forward to making that case in court,” said the spokesperson.

The Allen School does not require instructors to provide land acknowledgement statements. But it does provide instructors with guidelines on best practices for inclusive teaching that say such statements can make a syllabus more inclusive. The guidelines provide one example statement instructors can follow:

“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, who is not on a tenure track, said his statement reflected the theory of philosopher John Locke that property rights are established by labor.

The controversy made headlines earlier this year. At the time, a UW spokesperson provided the following statement to Higher Ed:

“Commonly utilized land acknowledgements are not politicized statements about land claims or ownership nor expressions of personal viewpoints about land ownership, but are rather statements of fact—the purpose being to acknowledge that the university sits on the historical ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people.”

Reges has come under fire for controversial statements in the past. In a 2018 essay he claimed that women are underrepresented in computer science because of personal preferences and choices, and that “having 20% women in tech is probably the best we are likely to achieve.” 

The area around the University of Washington includes Arboretum Creek, where Duwamish village Hikw’al’al (“Big House”) once stood. The UW campus also includes Intellectual House (wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ) which provides a gathering space for American Indian and Alaska Native students, faculty and staff.

Read the full text of the lawsuit below.