Student Found Guilty of Racism for Reading Book in Public

Klan Street

Klan Street (Photo credit: futurowoman)

In 2007 a student working his way through college was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book in public. Some of his co-workers had been offended by the book’s cover, which included pictures of men in white robes and peaked hoods along with the tome’s title, Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The student desperately explained that it was an ordinary history book, not a racist tract, and that it in fact celebrated the defeat of the Klan in a 1924 street fight. Nonetheless, the school, without even bothering to hold a hearing, found the student guilty of “openly reading [a] book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”

The incident would seem far-fetched in a Philip Roth novel—or a Philip K. Dick novel, for that matter—but it actually happened to Keith John Sampson, a student and janitor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indiana-polis. Despite the intervention of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I am president), the case was hardly a blip on the media radar for at least half a year after it took place.

Compare that lack of attention with the response to the now-legendary 1993 “water buffalo incident” at the University of Pennsylvania, where a student was brought up on charges of racial harassment for yelling “Shut up, you water buffalo!” out his window. His outburst was directed at members of a black sorority who were holding a loud celebration outside his dorm. Penn’s effort to punish the student was covered by Time, Newsweek, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The New Republic, NPR, and NBC Nightly News, for starters. Commentators from Garry Trudeau to Rush Limbaugh agreed that Penn’s actions warranted mockery. Hating campus political correctness was hotter than grunge rock in the early 1990s. Both the Democratic president and the Republican Congress condemned campus speech codes. California passed a law to invalidate Stanford’s onerous speech rules, and comedians and public intellectuals alike decried collegiate censorship.

So what happened? Why does a case like the one involving Sampson’s Klan book, which is even crazier than the “water buffalo” story that was an international scandal 15 years ago, now barely produce a national shrug?

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Categories: Miscellany

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