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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Is reading "Notre Dame v. the Klan" at work racial harassment?

Here's a story, that hits close to home, from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education):

In a stunning series of events at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), Keith Sampson, a university employee and student, has been charged with racial harassment for reading a book during his work breaks.

Sampson is in his early fifties, does janitorial work for the campus facility services at IUPUI, and is ten credits shy of a degree in communication studies. He is also an avid reader who usually brings books with him to work so that he can read in the break room when he is not on the clock. Last year, he began reading a book entitled Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. The book, which has garnered great reviews in such places as The Indiana Magazine of History and Notre Dame Magazine, discusses the events surrounding two days in May 1924, when a group of Notre Dame students got into a street fight in South Bend with members of the Ku Klux Klan. As an historical account of the students' response in the face of anti-Catholic prejudice, the book would seem to be a relevant and worthwhile read, both for residents of the state of Indiana and for anyone interested in this chapter of American history.

But others at IUPUI clearly did not see it that way. First, a shop steward told Sampson that reading a book about the KKK was like bringing pornography to work (apparently this holds true in his eyes regardless of the context in which a book discusses the KKK, the position it takes, and so on). Likewise, a co-worker who happened to be sitting across the table from Sampson in the break room remarked that she found the KKK offensive. On both occasions, Sampson tried to explain what the book was really about. Both times, the other individual refused to listen.

A few weeks later, Sampson was notified by Marguerite Watkins of the school's Affirmative Action Office (AAO) that a co-worker had filed a racial harassment complaint against him for reading the book in the break room.

I do not know as much as I'd like to know about workplace-harassment law.  But, assuming this account is true, is it remotely plausible that reading this book (which is a great read, by the way) at work -- a book that celebrates the defeat of the Klan, by a group that, in Indiana, was, like African-Americans, a target of Klan hatred -- constitutes racial harassment, or should be the ground for disciplinary action?

UPDATE:   A Prawfs reader (and fellow law-blogger) pointed out to me that several others had also posted, on several other blogs, this story.  For what it's worth, I got the story directly from a reader of my other blog, Mirror of Justice, and so didn't realize, at the time I posted it here, that other bloggers were on the case.  Otherwise, I would (and should) have given the old "hat tip" to the source.  Sorry for creating any confusion!

Posted by Rick Garnett on March 6, 2008 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment | Permalink


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I guess when I was a child learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school at my synagogue, I should have been offended by the anti-Jewishness of all that discussion of Nazis.

Posted by: Scott Moss | Mar 9, 2008 5:33:51 PM

Sigh. It is precisely this type of over-sensitivity that transforms academic institutions where thoughts are supposed to be free and diverse into places where people are afraid to speak their minds. As an undergraduate, I feel mostly silent in lecture after 1st year when my comments (I'm a social libertarian and secular humanist), often made simply to provide a counterpoint, made me the subject of scorn by my peers.

Shame on both IUPUI and especially Sampson's coworkers for being so bone headed. Perhaps we will soon be forced by this type of over reaction to hide our reading material with a copy of some benign magazine(the alumni review seems like a good candidate) to avoid being reported to the reading police.

Posted by: EL | Mar 6, 2008 12:27:54 PM

No. Next question.

Posted by: anymouse | Mar 6, 2008 11:49:21 AM

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