Reading Book on Break=Racial Harassment?
[Cross-posted on Workplace Prof Blog]
Here is a remarkable story, highlighted by the Freedom for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) The Torch, and brought to my attention by Dennis Nolan (South Carolina):
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.
To paraphrase EMF: “That’s Unbelievable.” So wrong on so many level, it reminds me of this blog post from the past. And the issues are not limited to employment discrimination ones, but also raise issues of prior restraint, freedom of speech and expression, the ability of an employer to control the off-duty conduct of an employee, and the allegedly one-sided nature of the investigation. Both Eugene Volokh and David Bernstein have highlighted the dangers that an over-aggressive application of employment discrimination laws poses for First Amendment rights in the public employment context.
Let’s hope that wiser heads prevail and this disciplinary action is overturned by those who understand the purpose and policy behind employment discrimination laws.