We all need to worry about this
- Crime and Punishment for Reading by Kathleen Parker March 7, 2008
WASHINGTON -- If an author can't make the Oprah cut, the next best
thing may be getting censured by a university.
Ever heard of Todd Tucker?
Didn't think so. Obviously, some have because he has books and
readers. But he's not Michael Crichton or John Grisham.
Tucker's name recently surfaced beyond Amazon's pages when one of his
books sparked an investigation at Indiana University-Purdue
University Indianapolis (IUPUI) because a janitor was reading it.
So you're thinking, this book must have been pretty bad. Something
like "Poached Puppies and Other Pet Recipes" or "What's So Wrong With
No, the book was a nonfiction account of a real incident in American
history -- "Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated
the Ku Klux Klan" (Loyola Press).
The current controversy began last fall when Keith John Sampson, a
student and university employee in his 50s, was reading Tucker's book
during a break from his janitorial duties.
Wrong place, wrong time, wrong book.
On the basis of the cover alone, a co-worker sitting across from
Sampson complained that the book was offensive. The cover shows the
Notre Dame dome and two burning crosses amid a crowd of robed and
The pages inside tell the story of a 1924 street fight between Notre
Dame students and Klansmen, who had gathered in South Bend purposely
to terrorize the university's Catholic students. The clash lasted two
days, during which the fighting Irish prevailed, and is recognized as
a turning point in Klan history.
But never mind. The co-worker apparently wasn't interested in the
content. The cover art was deemed traumatizing enough to prompt the
shop steward to reprimand Sampson, saying that reading a book about
the Klan was comparable to bringing pornography into the workplace.
A few weeks later, Sampson heard from the school's affirmative action
office that a racial harassment complaint had been filed against him.
In a November 2007 letter, affirmative action officer Lillian
Charleston told Sampson that he demonstrated "disdain and
insensitivity" to his co-workers.
"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."
The letter also noted that by 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 not
to read the book in the presence of his co-workers.
Charleston is right that reasonable people know how repugnant the KKK
is to African-Americans. But reasonable people also know how
repugnant the KKK is to people of all races. Reasonable people also
know that history is what it is. Reading about it isn't an incitement
to riot or an endorsement of the bad guys.
Following a few weeks of relatively quiet controversy, a smattering
of media reports and chatter in the blogosphere, Sampson received
another letter from the affirmative action office saying that no
determination could be made as to whether his reading choice was
intentionally hostile. Therefore, no disciplinary action would be
This time, Charleston insisted that the university doesn't restrict
reading materials and that she was merely addressing "the perception
of your co-workers that you were engaging in conduct for the purpose
of creating a hostile atmosphere of antagonism."
"Of course, if the conduct was intended to cause disruption to the
work environment, such behavior would be subject to action by the
university," she wrote.
Was Sampson being intentionally hostile and antagonistic?
One might argue that he was inconsiderate to continue reading the
book once he realized others found it distasteful. Maybe Sampson has
bad manners, but if bad manners are our new standard for disciplinary
action, everybody's under arrest.
You see, meanwhile, how vexing mind reading can be.
Yet, mind reading was the crux of this case and scores of others
where the interpretation of speech codes hinges on unanswerable
questions that require the power of divination: What was he thinking?
What was she feeling?
And who decides what thoughts are acceptable and which feelings are
A reasonable person might like to flip the question Charleston posed
about whether Sampson's book choice was intentionally hostile as
What could be more hostile in a university environment than
investigating a student's reading choices on the basis of a
bystander's perceptions? That's not just hostile, but sinister.
To read is sublime; but to read a mind is tricky.