Judging a book by its cover – literally

May 2, 2008

I hate the abuse of the word literally. Somehow our society has co-opted the word to mean something like “very much so” as opposed to, you know, literally. Since I’m a nerd about this stuff, it’s fun for me to use the word as it’s meant to be used. And today’s one of those fun times, because today marks the end of a case where a student employee was punished because other employees judged a book he was reading by its cover — literally.

Keith John Sampson is a janitor in his early fifties at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), but he also takes classes at the college. An avid reader, Sampson typically spends his breaks with his nose in a book. Last November, Sampson was reading Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, a book that celebrates the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in a 1924 street brawl with Notre Dame students.

But never mind what’s actually inside the book — it’s got a picture of hooded Klansmen burning a cross on the cover! Following this nasty bit of anti-intellectual illogic, Sampson’s workmates promptly freaked out. One coworker told Sampson that reading a book about the Klan was akin to ogling pornography at work. Another coworker sitting across from Sampson in the break room told him that she found the KKK offensive — a courageous stance, indeed, which also implies she thought Sampson must have considered the Klan the bee’s knees. Sampson tried to tell each what the book was actually about, but both refused to listen.

Two weeks later, Sampson received a letter from IUPUI’s Affirmative Action Office (AAO), informing him that two employees had filed a racial harassment complaint against him and that he had been found guilty — all because of the book. The AAO told Sampson that his big mistake was “openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.” Wow. Is The Diary of Anne Frank next?

Luckily, there’s a happy ending. After five months, two letters from the ACLU of Indiana, one from FIRE, and some bad publicity (which I hope I helped along) Keith John Sampson’s record has finally been cleared of the racial harassment finding. Much to his credit, Charles Bantz, IUPUI’s Chancellor, stepped up and admitted the school’s mistake.

Unfortunately, that makes Bantz something of a rarity among his fellow college bigwigs. Far too often, administrators dig in their heels when confronted with their abuse of student rights.

For example, take Brandeis University, named a recipient of a 2008 “Muzzle Award” by the Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression for finding a professor guilty of “racial harassment” for explaining the pejorative meaning of the term “wetback” in class. Or Colorado College where students have been found guilty of “violence” for publishing a parody of a feminist newsletter. Or how about the fact that most colleges and universities still maintain laughably unconstitutional speech codes?

So while I’m happy Sampson’s case concluded well, America’s colleges are still punishing people for engaging in free speech. Unfortunately, I mean that literally.

Schools:  Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

Cases:  Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis: Student Employee Found Guilty of ‘Racial Harassment’ for Reading a Book