INDIANAPOLIS, July 8, 2008—Two months ago, in the face of withering public criticism, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) revoked its original finding that student-employee Keith John Sampson had committed racial harassment by reading a book at work that celebrated the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in a 1924 street brawl. Now, IUPUI is claiming that Sampson was in fact punished for some other behavior, but the school refuses to reveal any details of this alleged conduct. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling on IUPUI to either reveal and prove this alleged offense or stop publicly smearing its own student.
“This looks like a classic example of a college making things worse in an unprincipled attempt to save face,” FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley said. “IUPUI’s own letters to Sampson made clear that his reading a book about the Ku Klux Klan was the problem, and the university claims to have completely exonerated him of all charges. If so, why are its spokespeople now telling The Wall Street Journal that the problem was really some other mysterious conduct that the university will not reveal to anyone, including Sampson himself?”
Sampson’s ordeal began in November 2007, when he was notified by Lillian Charleston of IUPUI’s Affirmative Action Office that two co-workers had filed a racial harassment complaint against him. The office alleged that by reading a book about the KKK in the break room, Sampson had engaged in racial harassment. Sampson attempted to explain that the book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, was a historical account of a 1924 incident in which a group of University of Notre Dame students fought in the streets with members of the Ku Klux Klan. This explanation was ignored, and he later received a letter from Charleston stating that he was guilty of racial harassment for “openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”
Yet according to an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the university’s “official story” has now become that Sampson’s reading material had nothing to do with the guilty finding. Instead, university relations officials claimed that some undisclosed “harassing behavior” had led to the charge. As columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote, “What the behavior was, one learned, could never be revealed.”
IUPUI’s handling of the case was flawed from the beginning. After the ACLU of Indiana wrote to IUPUI twice demanding that the finding be removed from Sampson’s file, IUPUI responded with a letter from Charleston to Sampson that neither reversed the guilty finding nor apologized for the damage to Sampson’s reputation. Then, in March 2008, FIRE wrote to IUPUI Chancellor Charles R. Bantz, insisting that Sampson’s record be expunged and that IUPUI apologize for its handling of the incident.
In April, FIRE received a letter from Bantz, stating that IUPUI “regret[s] this situation took place.” The letter also confirmed that no documents regarding the incident are in Sampson’s file and that IUPUI hoped that “this experience as well as feedback from the campus community will result in an improved [complaint] process.”
Following that exchange, FIRE publicly declared victory in the case, but IUPUI has apparently now chosen to resort to unsubstantiated and mysterious secret charges against Sampson when questioned about the case.
“If IUPUI really thought that Sampson had engaged in some ‘racially harassing’ behavior rather than reading a book, there is no reason why they would not have brought it up at the time—and no reason why they couldn’t say what it is now,” Shibley said. “This apparent whispering campaign against Sampson is truly appalling. IUPUI has either brazenly violated due process by finding a student guilty without a hearing and without even letting him know the allegations against him or, more likely, is lying in an attempt to stave off further embarrassment. Either way, the school has bitterly betrayed one of its own students.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis and elsewhere can be viewed at www.thefire.org.