With increasing frequency, college and university officials are wading into needless battles that have nothing whatsoever to do with the education of students, but are simply motivated by ideological fervor. Their investigations and punishments harken back to the Spanish Inquisition. Disagree with us and you’ll suffer!
Consider the University of Washington.
Stuart Reges is a professor of computer science who has taught at the university since 2004. In 2011, he was one of only seven faculty members to receive the Distinguished Teaching Award. He has consistently received excellent reviews from his students.
The problem is that Professor Reges has a mind of his own and won’t be bullied into saying things he disagrees with.
In 2021, the university suggested to faculty members that they should include in their syllabi a “land acknowledgement” to the effect that the University of Washington sits on land rightfully belonging to a local Indian tribe. Such statements have become widespread, as “woke” faculty and administrators seek news ways of displaying their great moral virtue. Not that university officials have any plans to return the land or compensate the tribe—this is simply a ritual among leftist intellectuals indicating how deeply they opposed the United States.
When Reges read the school’s “land acknowledgement,” he decided to put his own views into it. On his syllabus, 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.” He handed out his syllabus for the course and then went on with teaching. The students paid no attention to the “land acknowledgement,” but unfortunately this bit of heresy came to the attention of Reges’ superiors in his department.
A few weeks later, he was informed by the director of the computer science department, Magdalena Balaszinska, that his statement was “inappropriate” and that it created “a toxic environment” in his class. She demanded that Reges eliminate his “land acknowledgement” immediately, but he declined to do so, noting that other professors had changed the university’s suggested language without being called to account. Since theirs were, however, in line with the university’s pro-Indian stance, he was being singled out—a case of illegal viewpoint discrimination.
That did not matter to the administrators, who were outraged that Reges would dare to go against their beliefs. The department director arranged for a “shadow” course the same as his, but conducted via recorded lectures done by a right-thinking faculty member. Approximately 30 percent of the students decided to switch.
After that semester was over, Professor Reges was again disobedient on his syllabus for the next one, making the same intolerable statement. That led Nancy Allbritton, Dean of the School of Engineering, to inform him that she was convening a committee to investigate his conduct. Under the University’s Executive Order 31, faculty members are not allowed to engage in speech that is “unacceptable or inappropriate.” In a meeting, Director Balaszinska said that Reges’ statement was “demeaning and dehumanizing to Indigenous people” and Dean Allbritton stated that his syllabus had caused “disruption to instruction,” but she was not able to point to any evidence of that.
After that meeting the investigatory committee eventually began doing its task, but has yet to take any action. After 133 days of “investigation,” Professor Reges decided it was time to sue. Aided by attorneys from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), he has filed a lawsuit in United States District Court, Reges v. Cauce.
His complaint is well founded in First Amendment law.
In Keyishian v. Board of Regents, the Supreme Court held a New York law that prevented the employment of “subversives” in state schools to be unconstitutional. The government, wrote Justice Brennan in his opinion for the Court, is not allowed to cast a “pall of orthodoxy” over education. That is exactly what the State of Washington has done. By demanding that professors show their agreement with the university’s educationally irrelevant virtue signaling, the state government is trying to cast a pall of orthodoxy—those who don’t agree are not welcome.
Furthermore, the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence also makes it clear that state educational institutions may not engage in viewpoint discrimination, choosing to discriminate for or against individuals because of their opinions. In the 1995 case Rosenberger v. Rector, the Court held that if a public university chooses to fund non-religious groups, it cannot refuse to fund religious groups. The broad point is that the government is not allowed to bestow favors or punishments based on people’s beliefs. In this case, it seems obvious that the University of Washington has singled out Stuart Reges for ill-treatment not because of anything he has done, but merely because it disapproves of his beliefs.
What does Professor Reges want in his suit?
One thing he wants is an injunction against the University’s preposterous and harassing investigation. He also wants the Court to declare that the school’s Executive Order 31 is unconstitutionally vague and overly broad. How, after all, can any professor know what administrators might deem to be “unacceptable”? He also wants to be compensated for his legal costs.
Equally important, he seeks compensatory damages from the University for its infliction of emotional distress and loss of reputation caused by its hostile treatment of him. And he seeks damages from a number of the officials personally. This is very important. If university administrators can just pass the cost of lawsuits along to the taxpayers, they will never respect the constitutional rights of faculty who dissent from their ideology.
Under the judicial doctrine of “qualified immunity,” public officials are usually immune from judgment personally, but some courts have recently backed away from that doctrine and held that public officials can be personally liable if they should have known that their conduct violated individual rights. Before going on their crusade against Professor Reges because he disagrees with the university’s pointless land acquisition stance, they could have consulted lawyers who know First Amendment law and readily discovered that their actions would be unjustified.
The University of Washington would be wise to settle this case.