Appeals Court Upholds Suspension in Teacher’s Use of Racial Slur in Lesson

By Mark Walsh — June 03, 2016 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld the Chicago school system’s suspension of a 6th grade teacher for using for using a racial epithet in his classroom, ruling that even using the word in a lesson violated the school district’s policy against the use of racial epithets in front of students.

Lincoln Brown, a teacher at Murray Language Academy in the Chicago district, caught his students passing a note in class that included music lyrics featuring the word “nigger,” court papers say. He then attempted “a well‐intentioned but poorly executed discussion of why such words are hurtful and must not be used,” said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago.

Brown’s principal happened to be observing his class, and the principal suspended Brown, whose race isn’t noted in the opinion, for five days for violating the school board’s policy against the use of verbally abusive language.The Chicago school board upheld the suspension.

Brown sued, arguing that his First Amendment free speech rights and 14th Amendment due process of law rights were infringed by the discipline.

He lost in both a federal district court and in the 7th Circuit court. The three-judge appeals court panel ruled unanimously that his free speech rights were not violated because he used the word in the course of his employment.

The court noted that under U.S. Supreme Court precedents such as the 2006 case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, speech by public employees pursuant to their official duties is not protected by the First Amendment.

“Here, Brown gave his impromptu lesson on racial epithets in the course of his regular grammar lesson to a 6th grade class,” said the June 2 opinion by Chief Judge Diane P. Wood in Brown v. Chicago Board of Education. “His speech was therefore pursuant to his official duties. That he deviated from the official curriculum does not change this fact.”

The court also rejected Brown’s arguments that the school district’s rule against using racial epithets in front of students was unconstitutionally vague. Brown argued that the school system permitted the teaching of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which uses the word throughout, and had permitted the showing of movies such as “42,” about Jackie Robinson’s experiences as the first black player in Major League Baseball, which also uses the word.

“A handful of instances of past non‐enforcement ... is insufficient to render the policy so vague that an ordinary person would not know what it prohibits,” Wood said.

“Brown is indignant that he was suspended for using a racial slur while attempting to teach his students why such language is inappropriate,” Wood added. “His frustration is understandable, but it is not legally actionable.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.