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. Once again, he attempted to explain the book’s content, but Watkins too had no interest in hearing it. Despite his not being given a chance to defend himself, he subsequently received a letter from Lillian Charleston of the AAO, dated November 25, 2007, informing him that AAO had completed its investigation of the matter. The letter stated,
You demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your coworkers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their presence…you used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black coworkers.
It went on to say that according to “the legal ‘reasonable person standard,’ a majority of adults are aware of and understand how repugnant the KKK is to African-Americans…” As a result of AAO’s findings, Sampson was ordered to refrain from reading the book in the immediate presence of his co-workers and to sit apart from them whenever reading it.
IUPUI’s manner of handling this case has been so misguided that it is difficult to even know where to begin. It is bad enough that Sampson’s shop steward and co-worker were not willing to hear him out. It is much worse that Watkins, in her position of authority, took the same closed-minded, “ignorance is bliss” mindset (in her defense, at least she did not equate historical non-fiction to pornography). And it is beyond appalling that AAO concluded its handling of the matter with still no opportunity for Sampson to defend himself or face his accusers. What’s next—is IUPUI going to institute a banned-books list, or perhaps, a list of books that may not be read around co-workers of certain races or ethnicities?
It is also difficult to see how and where AAO’s “reasonable person” standard would fit into a proper analytic framework for racial harassment in the workplace. Even though sexual and racial harassment law allows employers to regulate employee conduct in ways that colleges and universities legally cannot regulate student and faculty conduct, the Supreme Court has long held, going back to its seminal decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986), that in order to constitute actionable workplace harassment, such conduct must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.” I would love to hear IUPUI’s arguments supporting the conclusion that Sampson’s habit of reading a book (in the break room, while drawing no attention to himself, and only when he was not on the clock) was “severe or pervasive” enough to alter a co-worker’s employment conditions and create an “abusive working environment.”
The ludicrous fact that the racial harassment finding was based purely on Sampson’s reading a book, rather than directing any conduct toward a co-worker, cannot be overstated. FIRE followers and supporters may remember that we joined an amicus brief in 2005 for the California Supreme Court’s crucial decision in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, 38 Cal. 4th 264 (Sup. Ct. 2006). That decision affirmed, in the context of workplace sexual harassment, that conduct must typically be directed or targeted at the complainant in order to constitute actionable harassment. In the California Supreme Court’s own words, “conduct that involves or is aimed at persons other than the plaintiff is considered less offensive and severe than conduct that is directed at the plaintiff.” In Sampson’s case, there was no conduct targeted at anyone, let alone the unknown complainant. He simply read his book, left his co-workers alone, and drew no attention to himself. Again, I would love to hear IUPUI try to argue its way around this issue.
In some ways, this lamentable episode is reminiscent of Jihad Daniel’s 2005 case at William Paterson University. Both cases involve older gentlemen who were employee-students at their respective institutions, and both involve allegations of harassment. At the same time, I would submit that Sampson’s case is more shocking. Whereas Daniel actually directed an opinion toward his professor (though his expression still fell well short of a proper legal definition of harassment), Sampson did not actually say or do anything to anyone. So the question remains, how could anyone in his position possibly be found guilty of racial harassment? We at FIRE will be following up on this case, so stay tuned to the Torch for updates.