You Can't Read That!:

An employee of a public university was disciplined for engaging in "racial harassment" for reading a book called Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, the fact that the book had the phrase "Ku Klux Klan" in its title was enough to set the regulatory gears in motion. Paul Secunda has the details at Concurring Opinions.

While this book is actually a story of opposition to the Klan, I should note that in my view, even if the employee had reading a pro-Klan book it would be unconstitutional for him to face legal liability or punishment by the government merely because his choice of reading materials offended his coworkers.

Harassment By "Reading ... Book Related to a Historically and Racially Abhorrent Subject":

The Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis letter David mentioned can't, I think, be captured well in a paraphrase. Here's the full text, sent to Keith Sampson (a janitor):

The Affirmative Action Office has completed its investigation of Ms. Nakea Vincent'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. In conducting this investigation, we interviewed you, Nakea Vincent, and other employees with information relevant to the mailer.

Upon review of this matter, 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 coworkers 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.

This concludes this matter with the Affirmative Action Office. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

If this were a parody, people would have faulted it for being so excessive as to be unbelievable — but it appears to be quite real.

Fortunately, the University seems to have changed its tune in a later letter:

This letter will replace my prior letter to you dated November 25, 2007.

I wish 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 limes. There is no University policy that prohibits reading such materials on break time. As was previously stated, you are permitted to read such materials during appropriate times.

I also wish to clarify that my prior letter to you was meant only to address conduct on your part that raised concern on the part of your co-workers. It was the perception of your co-workers that you were engaging in conduct for the purpose of creating a hostile atmosphere of antagonism. Your perception was that you were reading a scholarly work during break time, and should be permitted to do so whether or not the subject matter is of concern to your coworkers.

I am unable to draw any final conclusion concerning what was intended by the conduct. Of course, if the conduct was intended to cause disruption to the work environment, such behavior would be subject to action by the University. However, 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.

Hard for me to see this as a "clarification"; it's a retreat, and an eminently justifiable one (though I wish it were even more complete and clear). In any case, though, the University deserves to be strongly faulted for its original position.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Reading Book About KKK as Racial Harassment?
  2. Harassment By "Reading ... Book Related to a Historically and Racially Abhorrent Subject":
  3. You Can't Read That!:
Reading Book About KKK as Racial Harassment?

The matter seems to have been finally resolved, and resolved right (though the complaint should have been thrown out at the very beginning, rather than leading to a finding of racial harassment). Here's the letter from the Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis Chancellor:

I can candidly say that we regret this situation took place and that IUPUI takes this matter very seriously. IUPUI is committed to ensuring that its future approach to such matters is consistent with and affirms the long-standing commitment of this campus to the principles of freedom of expression, lifelong learning, and respect for the rights of all members of the IUPUI community. In the near future, IUPUI will be reexamining the campuswide affirmative action processes and procedures relating to internal complaints.
Thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the ACLU of Indiana for their work on this case.