Keith Sampson’s case at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) was recently covered in the Indianapolis Star.
As we have reported previously on The Torch, Sampson, a student-employee at IUPUI, faced allegations of racial harassment for the mere act of reading a book entitled Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan during his work breaks. Even though he did nothing more than read by himself in the break room, without targeting any conduct toward his co-workers, one of them filed a complaint on the basis of the subject matter of the book. The university’s Affirmative Action Office (AAO) investigated the complaint and informed Sampson, via a letter dated November 25, 2007, that it had found him guilty of racial harassment. It subsequently clarified in a second letter, dated February 7, 2008, that he was in fact free to read the book during his work breaks.
The Star article discusses the insufficiency of the second letter, which neglected to explicitly reverse the earlier finding, offer an apology for the AAO’s mistreatment of Sampson, or demonstrate a proper understanding of the legal standard for racial harassment in the workplace. It highlights the fact that Sampson is “still waiting for an apology from university officials and answers to questions about how the allegation was handled.”
The Star also provides a glimpse into the university’s line of thought:
The university suggested in a statement, though, that the book’s anti-racism themes were not at issue: “Regrettably, that has focused attention on the book he was reading, rather than the conduct of Mr. Sampson, which his co-workers believed to be deliberately hostile.”
The statement says co-workers had felt Sampson was trying to create a “hostile atmosphere of antagonism.”
It remains to be seen how the act of reading a book by oneself could have been construed as the deliberate creating of a hostile, antagonistic work environment. Either the university has some truly creative arguments in store, or this is just a flimsy attempt to explain away its inexcusable actions in this case.
The Star article discusses one possible explanation as to why the whole controversy arose in the first place: the fact that Sampson had “minor tensions with other employees,” resulting from a staff meeting where some of them began reading from the Bible. This raises two salient points. First, it establishes why a co-worker might construe anything even remotely disagreeable that Sampson did as antagonistic, no matter how unreasonable the claim.
Second, how can it be permissible for employees to read from the Bible during a staff meeting, when another employee in the same workplace is later reprimanded for reading a scholarly work by himself in the break room? Do Sampson’s employers have the faintest notions of consistency and fairness? Do they not recognize that some employees may be offended or made uncomfortable by the former just as others may be by the latter? The Star article does not provide any further details about the staff meeting incident, but the mere fact that this was allowed to take place in the same workplace in which Sampson was accused of racial harassment is staggering.
Notably, the Star also featured a terrific column on Sampson’s case on the same day, written by syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post (subscription required). As Parker writes, the worst that could be said about what Sampson did is that it was inconsiderate to continue reading his book once others expressed that they found it distasteful. This point is very debatable, but in any event, as she says, “[I]f bad manners are our new standard for disciplinary action, everybody’s under arrest.” She then concludes her column with these thoughts:
A reasonable person might like to flip the question Charleston posed about whether Sampson’s book choice was intentionally hostile as follows:
What could be more hostile in a university environment than investigating a student’s reading choices on the basis of a bystander’s perceptions? That’s not just hostile, but sinister.