Victory at IUPUI: Student-Employee Found Guilty of Racial Harassment for Reading a Book Now Cleared of All Charges
May 1, 2008
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind., May 1, 2008—Administrators at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) have revoked their finding that a student-employee was guilty of racial harassment merely for publicly reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. Following pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), IUPUI has declared that Keith John Sampson's record is clear and said it will reexamine its affirmative action procedures relating to internal complaints.
"Just when you'd thought you'd seen every crazy act of censorship a college administrator can dream up, along comes a case where a student is found guilty of racial harassment simply for reading a book," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Thankfully, with time and public outrage, IUPUI's administration recognized Keith John Sampson had done nothing wrong and acknowledged that the First Amendment protects not only what you say, but also what you read."
In November 2007, Sampson—who works in the school's janitorial department and is ten credits away from a degree in communications—was notified by Lillian Charleston of IUPUI's Affirmative Action Office (AAO) that two co-workers had filed a racial harassment complaint against him. The AAO alleged that by reading a book on the KKK in the break room, Sampson had engaged in racial harassment. Sampson attempted to explain that the book, written by Todd Tucker, was a historical account of the events on two days in May 1924, when a group of Notre Dame students fought with members of the Ku Klux Klan. His explanation was dismissed, and he later received a letter from Charleston that determined he was guilty of racial harassment. Charleston wrote that his failures included "openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject."
Sampson contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which wrote to IUPUI's counsel several times demanding that the letter be removed from his file. It was not until February 7, 2008, that IUPUI responded to Sampson, with a letter from Charleston which stated, "if the conduct was intended to cause disruption to the work environment, such behavior would be subject to action by the University," but "because I cannot draw any final conclusion in this instance, no such adverse disciplinary action has been or will be taken in connection with the circumstances at hand."
Since this letter neither reversed the guilty finding nor apologized for the damage to Sampson's reputation, FIRE wrote to IUPUI Chancellor Charles R. Bantz in March for clarification. FIRE demanded that all documents regarding the guilty finding be expunged from Sampson's record, that IUPUI apologize for its handling of the incident, and that the school clarify and confirm its understanding of harassment law.
FIRE finally received a letter—six months after Sampson's ordeal began—from Bantz, stating that IUPUI "regret[s] this situation took place" and is committed to upholding freedom of expression on its campus.
The letter also confirmed that no documents regarding the incident are in Sampson's file and that IUPUI hopes "this experience as well as feedback from the campus community will result in an improved [complaint] process."
"After six months of uncertainly, Sampson finally can be sure that he is in the clear," Lukianoff said. "We applaud higher-level administrators at IUPUI for taking this case so seriously and promising to reform, and we suggest to the lower-level administrators at IUPUI to remember the old adage, ‘never judge a book by its cover.'"
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our nation's campuses. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis and elsewhere can be seen at www.thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles R. Bantz, Chancellor, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis: 317-274-4417; email@example.com
Lillian Charleston, Affirmative Action Officer, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis: 317-274-2306; firstname.lastname@example.org