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We all need to worry about this

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  • James W. Durney
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 12, 2008
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      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
      hooded Klansmen.

      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.
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