Thursday, March 06, 2008

Note To Self: Don't Enroll at IUPUI

I may at some point have told the story of my self-consciousness when reading books about Critical Race Theory in public spaces. It's not as bad as it used to be, but I was always afraid that, to the uninformed observer, it will look like a racist tract. So I covered the title with my hand, and if I was asked what I was reading, I'd answer
"Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. It's kind of a cutting edge, progressive theory on ending racism in the United States.

The second part, of course, is meant to be the crucial check -- I'm assuring folks it's not the latest brochure from the Knights of the White Camellia.

But in my scariest nightmares, the worst I imagined was I'd get a glare or a hostile encounter. I never thought I might get tagged with racial harassment for reading a book opposed to racism. But Paul Secunda at Concurring Opinions tells us that it appears to be what happened at IUPUI, where an employee (and student) was disciplined for reading a book entitled Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.
First, a shop steward told Sampson that reading a book about the KKK was like bringing pornography to work (apparently this holds true in his eyes regardless of the context in which a book discusses the KKK, the position it takes, and so on). Likewise, a co-worker who happened to be sitting across the table from Sampson in the break room remarked that she found the KKK offensive. On both occasions, Sampson tried to explain what the book was really about. Both times, the other individual refused to listen.

A few weeks later, Sampson was notified by Marguerite Watkins of the school's Affirmative Action Office (AAO) that a co-worker had filed a racial harassment complaint against him for reading the book in the break room. Once again, he attempted to explain the book's content, but Watkins too had no interest in hearing it. Despite his not being given a chance to defend himself, he subsequently received a letter from Lillian Charleston of the AAO, dated November 25, 2007, informing him that AAO had completed its investigation of the matter. The letter stated,
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 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.

It 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..." As a result of AAO's findings, Sampson was ordered to refrain from reading the book in the immediate presence of his co-workers and to sit apart from them whenever reading it.

In the comments at CC, Michael Manister notes how the particular nexus of laws in play here -- mixed with legal precedent decimating employee free speech rights -- makes a suit by the employee nearly impossible to pull off. Because of that, Howard Wasserman argues that the incentive structure of anti-discrimination law pushes the university to act in this way specifically because the sanction employee is in a weaker position and likely can't fire back.

It appears that the University has now walked its position back (sort of), but in a way that still leaves open the chance for serious abuse. Just a stupid situation by the university.


Matthew said...

Wow. Just... wow. How absolutely idiotic. And here I was, finally about to start respecting the institution after years of making fun of it.

On the bright side: this just about justifies the heap of shit I've been giving my friends who go there. Thanks, David! :)

Unknown said...

Musings: You know, it occurs to me that most people wouldn't be as offended by this had the employee been reading an actual racist tract and been disciplined for that. I know I wouldn't be.

So we could ask, what's the difference? Should the employer be put in the place of arbitrating which viewpoints are acceptable and which are not? ("Oh, well if you're offended by the title of that book you're just ignorant, but THIS one is clearly, objectively innapropriate.") Or does the mere fact that another employee was offended give IUPUI the right to take action as it sees fit? After all, employers can dictate grooming and dress code, so why not the reading materials that are brought into the workplace?

I don't claim to have the answers here, but I do think there are more questions than some of the reactions to this story realize.

Stentor said...

joe: I think your point would be stronger if the university's position had been "We hate criticism of the KKK, so we're disciplining him for bringing anti-KKK materials to the workplace." But in this case, what they're disciplining him for (being pro-KKK) is the *opposite* of what he actually did.

Unknown said...

No, I think the position would have been stronger had the University said, "For whatever reason this material in the workplace made another employee uncomfortable. Uncomfortable employees perform poorly, so don't display this book in the presence of X person. We don't care what the 'True Meaning' of the book is and don't want to be drawn into the task of discerning it each time a complaint arises." The fact that it went through the Affirmative Action Office just clouds the issue.

Cycle Cyril said...

Whenever you have restrictions on free speech, whether by speech codes imposed by universities or in this case when people feel entitle to call anything they wish as harassment and then have the power of the state/university investigate and respond instead of doing due diligence themselves, you will find abuses at some point.

Whenever you have someone else defining the limits of speech it will eventually be restricted (and of course I am not talking about yelling fire in a theater.) And this is not related to dress codes since it was done on his off time and is related to freedom of speech and the press.

My question concerning this event is: Will the accusers face a penalty for their false accusation despite their "feelings"? Of course not because then the administration would have to admit they were wrong as well.

PG said...

It's not a false accusation to say "I was bothered by this" if the basis for the offense is whether you're bothering someone -- and bothering someone *intentionally* is pretty much the definition of harassment. Of course, only some kinds of harassment are prohibited specifically; I can harass someone at work every day about his ugly ties, and my behavior probably won't be prohibited by my workplace, just seen as a sign that I'm a jerk. The problem in this case is that while his co-workers may have been bothered by his reading material, it was not his intent to bother them, nor was the material reasonably likely to be bothersome when actually understood.

As for Joe's idea that all reading material should be accepted in the workplace regardless of whether it is being done with the intent to offend and whether it is reasonably likely to offend, I disagree. Employers can dictate grooming and dress code because these are seen as necessary to the functioning of the workplace, and indeed grooming requirements that have no connection to functioning -- for example, requiring an office drone to wear makeup -- can be challenged successfully. (Requiring someone who interacts with the public and who is supposed to be "attractive" to wear makeup is legally permissible.)

Someone's reading material while on break has nothing to do with workplace functioning unless it is likely to create offense and disruption. If I'm reading a book about the glories of the KKK, say with a cover depicting a lynched black man, my co-workers reasonably may be disturbed by this on a daily basis. The same would be true of a book titled, "Let's Kill the White Pigs." Therefore it may be deemed disruptive. On the other hand, it is not reasonable to be offended by a book that is *opposed* to the KKK. The "White Pigs" book, even if satirical, probably would be inappropriate for a workplace simply because you would have to explain to every person that it was satirical. But there was nothing about the title of "Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan" that's overtly offensive to a reasonable person who is aware that the KKK existed and that it would be moronic to pretend it didn't. The cover might be slightly disturbing because of its depiction of a cross-burning Klan rally, but unless the co-workers are illiterate, they should be able to view it in the context of the title.

I would be interested to see if Cyril feels equally opposed to government restriction on speech if the person being bothered was the parent of a young child whose kid had seen sexual activity on TV or heard George Carlin's 7 Words on the radio. Certainly there's plenty of such restrictions supported by conservatives, such as Sen. Tom Coburn, who said NBC shouldn't air "Schindler's List" at a time children might be watching. (And as a Congressman, he could back his view by calling on the FCC to restrict NBC from doing so.) True believers in complete freedom of speech are rare on both sides of the aisle.

The "community standard" basis for whether material is deemed obscene is just as based on "feelings" as this incident was. At least with this incident, the relevant feelings were the ones of the people in front of the actor -- for online material, the community standard is set by ANY part of the country that has internet access.

Unknown said...

PG: "As for Joe's idea that all reading material should be accepted in the workplace regardless of whether it is being done with the intent to offend and whether it is reasonably likely to offend, I disagree."

That's a somewhat inaccurate reading of what I said. More accurately, I wondered if employers didn't reserve some right to prohibit *any* reading in the workplace, because frankly, they can arbitrarily dictate a lot of random crap. That strikes me as preferable to having them be in the business of saying "Well, people can be rightly offended by this but only an idiot would be offended by this other thing."

That said, the fact that this is going on in the break room does strike me as pretty important, as I'd definitely concede that a lot less employer control is permissible there. Maybe anything goes in the break room, but it seems to me far too much time is being spent in complaints of what we'd reasonably expect to be offensive (thus creating, wrongly IMO, rules on which opinions can be expressed and which can't)and not enough on just what the limits of employer power are.

PG said...


Sorry about the inaccuracy of the description. Employer power is more contested for IUPUI than at the average workplace for two reasons: 1) it's a university, which has a special interest in promoting intellectual freedom; and 2) more importantly for legal purposes, it's a state actor, which brings constitutional rights into play. So when you say employers legally "can arbitrarily dictate a lot of random crap," it's less true for the employer under discussion here than for many others. Yes, IUPUI might be able to ban certain break room behaviors entirely, including reading, but once it starts saying which books can be read and which can't, that raises 1st Amendment viewpoint discrimination issues for a state actor that are irrelevant for a private sector employer.

As for which opinions can be expressed, it really does depend on whether the opinions a) create a disruption in the workplace; and b) infringe on others' right to a non-hostile workplace. These two things are connected but not precisely the same, particularly with regard to the law. The first is a matter of practicality: obviously, we cannot require an employer to permit behavior that reduces productivity unless it is specially protected (such as union organizing). The second is a matter of statutory and regulatory anti-discrimination law.

Your comments may have been from a more moralistic and less legalistic perspective, so apologies if I misread them.