Commentators, Readers Weigh in on Racial Harassment Case at IUPUI

By March 7, 2008

We at FIRE are certainly not alone in our outrage over the ludicrous treatment of Keith Sampson at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Commentators and Torch readers alike have expressed shock, dismay, frustration, and other justifiable reactions to this case.

To summarize, a co-worker complained about Sampson reading a book which provides a historical account of a street fight in 1924 between University of Notre Dame students and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Even though Sampson did nothing more than read the book in the break room during his work breaks, IUPUI’s Affirmative Action Office (AAO) sent him a letter dated November 25, 2007, concluding that his conduct constituted racial harassment. Never mind that he had never even been given the chance to explain himself or confront his accusers. Subsequently, the AAO sent him a second letter dated February 7, 2008, in which it sought to “clarify” that the university had no policy against reading scholarly literature during work breaks, and that AAO was only responding to “the perception of your co-workers that you were engaging in conduct for the purpose of creating a hostile atmosphere of antagonism.” Once again, never mind that there is no “conduct” to speak of in this case other than the act of quietly reading by oneself in the break room.

Commentators have lambasted IUPUI for its manner of handling this case, and rightly so. Overlawyered has a blog on Sampson’s case, posted this morning. Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh writes of the AAO’s investigation, as embodied in the November 25 letter, “If this were a parody, people would have faulted it for being so excessive as to be unbelievable.” He calls out the university’s attempt to misleadingly characterize the second letter as a “clarification,” when instead an overt admission of wrongdoing would be more appropriate, and adds that in any case, the university “deserves to be strongly faulted for its original position.” We could not agree more.

Paul Secunda of Concurring Opinions writes that this case reminds him of another shameful episode from 2006, when two private school teachers in Washington state filed a lawsuit alleging that they suffered from a racially hostile work environment, based in part on their school’s decision to invite conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza to speak. Somehow, this resulted in D’Souza actually being disinvited from speaking at the school. To think that the mere act of inviting a speaker can contribute to a hostile work environment reaches about the same level of absurdity, give or take, as the allegation that seeing a co-worker read a book with a disfavored topic in the title (without caring to find out how the book deals with that topic) constitutes racial harassment.

For me, Sampson’s case is also reminiscent of a 2003 FIRE case at Gonzaga University. Students at Gonzaga complained after a student organization put up fliers on campus advertising an upcoming speaker event, based on the fact that the fliers contained the title of the speaker’s book: Why the Left Hates America. Upset over the mere use of the word “hate,” students tore down some of the fliers in violation of school policy, and at least two of them were in fact torn down by university administrators. Gonzaga took no action against the censors. Instead, despite the fact that the university had pre-approved the fliers, it responded to the complaints by placing a disciplinary letter in the organization’s file, suggesting that use of the word “hate” was “discriminatory” and might constitute “hate speech.” After FIRE intervened, Gonzaga backtracked and removed the letter from the organization’s file, but the suggestion that use of the word “hate,” regardless of context, could be construed as discriminatory hate speech remains chilling. It is one thing to take an expansive view of what constitutes hate speech. But to actually threaten punishment over the use of an everyday word, without taking into consideration how it is used, goes a step further and defies common sense.

Commentators are not alone in their reactions to the IUPUI case. Torch readers have weighed in strongly as well. Steward Trickett asks, for instance, whether the next step after this case is to begin targeting “thinking as oppression,” and wonders if one could get into trouble at IUPUI for reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Hubert Schaneman suggests a certain amount of illiteracy within the IUPUI administration as a potential explanation for what has taken place. David Young asks whether, under IUPUI’s logic, campus bookstores could be banned from carrying the offending book, and if not, whether a bookstore employee or visitor should be able to demand redress for being exposed to the book on store shelves. A reader over at the Volokh Conspiracy, meanwhile, points out that the book Sampson was reading is available in IUPUI’s library collection (he in fact did check out the book from the school’s library). Finally, another Volokh Conspiracy reader reveals that the AAO’s own website contains an article detailing the history of the KKK, although that certainly did not appear to impact its handling of the matter. So it seems that the subject matter of the history of the KKK is a relevant one and worth reading about, but, according to IUPUI, not if doing so upsets someone else. Small wonder that so many people are riled up about Sampson’s case.

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