Keith John Sampson never thought he could get in trouble for reading a book, especially not on a college campus.
But that's what happened. Sampson is a man in his early 50s. He does janitorial work for the campus facility services at IUPUI, where he's been gradually accumulating credits for a degree in communications studies. He has 10 credit hours to go.
“Being on that campus has really been an experience for me,” Sampson told me not long ago. It's an experience that got a lot more complicated last year.
Sampson is an avid reader. It's been his habit to bring books to work with him, so that he can read in the break room when he's not on the clock. Last year, Sampson was working in IUPUI's Medical Science building. It turns out the break room there is across from the morgue, which, as Sampson pointed out, is kind of ironic when you stop to think about it.
At the time, Sampson was reading a book he had checked out from the public library. Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, published in 2004, features a photograph of the University of Notre Dame's famous golden dome on the cover. Its author is Todd Tucker, the publisher is Loyola Press of Loyola University in Chicago.
The book is about how for two days in May 1924, a group of Notre Dame students got into a street fight with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was meeting in South Bend for the express purpose of sticking a collective thumb in the eye of the country's most famous Catholic university. Notre Dame vs. the Klan was a Notre Dame Magazine “Pick of the Week” and garnered an average customer review of 4.5 stars on Amazon.com. In its review, The Indiana Magazine of History noted that Tucker “succeeds in placing the event in a broad framework that includes the origins and development of both the Klan and Notre Dame.”
Sampson recalls that his AFSCME shop steward told him that reading a book about the Klan was like bringing pornography to work. The shop steward wasn't interested in hearing what the book was actually about. Another time, a coworker who was sitting across the table from Sampson in the break room commented that she found the Klan offensive. Sampson says he tried to tell her about the book, but she wasn't interested in talking about it.
A few weeks passed. Then Sampson got a message ordering him to report to Marguerite Watkins at the IUPUI Affirmative Action Office. He was told a coworker had filed a racial harassment complaint against him for reading Notre Dame vs. the Klan in the break room. Sampson says he tried to explain to Watkins what the book was about. He says he tried to show her the book, but that Watkins showed no interest in seeing it.
Then Sampson received a letter, dated Nov. 25, 2007, from Lillian Charleston, also of IUPUI's Affirmative Action Office. The letter begins by saying that the AAO has completed its investigation of a coworker's allegation that Sampson “racially harassed her by repeatedly reading the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan by Todd Tucker in the presence of Black employees.” It goes on to say, “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.” Charleston 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 …”
Sampson was ordered to stop reading the book in the immediate presence of his coworkers and, when reading the book, to sit apart from them.
“I feel like I've been caught up in a 21st century version of catch-22,” says Sampson, who has never been given the opportunity to officially face any of his accusers. When I tried calling the Affirmative Action Office, I was told their policy is to never speak to the media.
But, Sampson says, this episode could be an opportunity. He would welcome the chance to participate in a moderated forum that might use his experience for a larger discussion dealing with intellectual freedom on the IUPUI campus.
That's a good idea. For Sampson's sake, I hope ideas still count at IUPUI.
Editors note: At press time we learned that Sampson received another letter from IUPUI's Affirmative Action Office, postmarked Feb. 21. We will continue to follow this story.