Civil Liberties

Put Down the Book and Step Away From Your Co-Workers


At Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI), the image to the right is considered Not Safe for Work. Can you guess why? Hint: It's not because the statue of the Virgin Mary atop Notre Dame University's dome is considered risqué. It's because—well, I'll let IUPUI Affirmative Action Officer Lillian Charleston explain (italics added):

The Affirmative Action Office has completed its investigation of [redacted]'s allegation that you 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…

We conclude that your conduct constitutes racial harassment in that you demonstrated disdain and insensitivity to your co-workers who repeatedly requested that you refrain from reading the book which has such an inflammatory and offensive topic in their presence. You contend that you weren't aware of the offensive nature of the topic and were reading the book about the KKK to better understand discrimination. However 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 co-workers. Furthermore, employing the legal "reasonable person standard," a majority of adults are aware of and understand how repugnant the KKK is to African Americans, their reactions to the Klan, and the reasonableness of the request that you not read the book in their presence.

During your meeting with Marguerite Watkins, Assistant Affirmative Action Officer, you were instructed to stop reading the book in the immediate presence of your co-workers and when reading the book to sit apart from the immediate proximity of these co-workers. Please be advised, any future substantiated conduct of a similar nature could result in serious disciplinary action.

Racial harassment is very serious and can result in serious consequences for all involved. Please be advised that racial harassment and retaliation against any individual for having participated in the investigation of a complaint of this nature is a violation of University policy and will not be tolerated.

That's from a letter (PDF) that Charleston sent on November 25 to Keith Sampson, a middle-aged member of IUPUI's janitorial staff who is working toward a communications degree and likes to read scholarly books like Tucker's (about a 1924 brawl between Notre Dame students and Klansmen) on his breaks. He didn't realize that sort of provocative behavior could "result in serious disciplinary action."

After thinking about it for a couple of months, Charleston evidently decided her threat was unwarranted. In a February 7 letter (PDF) to Sampson, she said she wanted to "clarify that my prior letter was not meant to imply that it is impermissible for you or to limit your ability to read scholarly books or other such literature during break times." Charleston, of course, never implied that; she stated it explicitly. But now she wanted Sampson to know it was never the book that was the problem; "it was the perception of your co-workers that you were engaging in conduct [i.e., reading the book] for the purpose of creating a hostile environment of antagonism." She contrasted that perception with "your perception," which was that "you were reading a scholarly work during break time, and you should be permitted to do so whether or not the subject matter is of concern to your coworkers." Faced with the clash between these two equally reasonable perceptions, Charleston threw up her hands, saying, "I am unable to draw any final conclusion concerning what was intended by the conduct."

To clarify, then, Sampson was not in trouble because of the book he chose to read. He was in trouble because of what he might have been thinking while reading the book.

Still confused? You can reach Lillian Charleston at or 317-274-2306 and ask for further clarification. If you have any suggestions for books that Sampson should add to his reading list, please offer them in the comments.

David Hoppe covered Sampson's run-in with IUPUI's thought police in Nuvo, a local alternative weekly.

Addendum: I've fixed the email address and Amazon link.

[Thanks to Nicolas Martin for the tip.]