A janitor whom a university official had accused of racial harassment for reading a historical book about the Ku Klux Klan on his break has gotten an apology — months later — from the school.
Charles Bantz, chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, apologized to Keith John Sampson in a letter dated Friday, saying the school is committed to free expression.
"I can candidly say that we regret this situation took place," Bantz wrote.
Sampson's troubles began last year when a co-worker complained after seeing him reading a book titled "Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan."
The book's cover features white-robed Klansmen and burning crosses against a backdrop of Notre Dame's campus. It recounts a 1924 riot between Notre Dame students and the Klan in which the students from the Catholic university prevailed.
A historical account
Sampson, a 58-year-old white janitor and student majoring in communication studies, said he tried to explain that the book was a historical account.
"I have an interest in American history," Sampson said. "I was trying to educate myself."
But Sampson says his union official likened the book to bringing pornography to work, and the school's affirmative action officer in November told Sampson his conduct constituted racial harassment.
"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," Lillian Charleston wrote in a letter to Sampson.
Civil liberties groups and bloggers who took up his cause said Sampson had been wrongly cited for reading a book that is carried by the school's library.
"I am sure you see the absurdity of a university threatening an employee with discipline for reading a scholarly work that deals with the efforts of Notre Dame students in the 1920s to fight the KKK," American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana attorney Ken Falk said in a letter to a university lawyer.
The university in February informed Sampson no disciplinary action would be taken because the affirmative action office was unable to determine whether his conduct was intended to disrupt the work environment.
"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," wrote Charleston, who has since retired, in a second letter. "There is no university policy that prohibits reading such materials on break time."
Not good enough
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group that has fought for student rights around the country, said the second letter wasn't good enough.
"By first finding Sampson guilty of racial harassment simply for reading a book in the break room, then refusing to admit the gross impropriety of such a finding, IUPUI makes a mockery of its legal and moral obligations as a public institution of higher learning," wrote Adam Kissel, director of the group's Individual Rights Defense Program.
The university responded with an April letter to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the ACLU, in which Chancellor Bantz said that he regretted what had happened and that the letters written to Sampson were not in his personnel file.
But Bantz didn't apologize to Sampson until last week, after a column in The Wall Street Journal sparked renewed criticism. Bantz also wrote to the others involved in the incident, including the co-worker who filed the complaint, said university spokesman Rich Schneider.
"The sentiment the chancellor was expressing in all of the letters was that this whole matter could have and should have been handled differently," he said.
Sampson, who still works for the school, said that he accepts the university's apology but that he was hurt by the allegations and has not enjoyed being in the spotlight.
"It's really frustrating for me because I am not the kind of person that they were painting me as," he said.