Thursday, April 23, 2015

No 1st Amendment Protection for Teachable Moment on the “N” Word

With no pun intended, the Federal District Court recently reinforced the legal lesson that teachers do not have unfettered right of free speech when presenting their lessons. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Plaintiff Brown was a sixth grade teacher for the district. During a lesson originally intended to be about grammar, Brown intercepted a note being passed among students which contained abusive references, including the “N” word. Mr. Brown decided to take time, as he put it, to make it a “teachable moment” with his students .Unfortunately for teacher Brown, at the point when he was reading the note, including the “N” word, the principal entered the classroom to observe the lesson. The Principal got an earful. 

The Board of Education has a discipline code which, among other rules, contains a prohibition on use of abusive language.  Board of Education employees also testified that use of the “N” word was prohibited altogether in schools. Brown received a five day suspension for using the word in the classroom. He sued the Board of Education claiming among other things, that the prohibition on the use of the word and suspension violated his First Amendment right to free speech. Among his arguments was that he was not using the word in an abusive manner, rather it was in the context of a “teachable moment” for the students.

The court award summary judgment for the Board of Education finding that “Public employers can regulate the speech of their employees without regard to First Amendment limits when the speech at issue is uttered in the course of the employee's duties. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 421 (2006).” The Court further noted that the holding in Garcetti “ applies directly to a claim by a school teacher that she was dismissed for expressing certain views in the classroom.”  The court found that no doubt existed that speech related to racial, ethnic or cultural epitaphs is subject to regulation.

The court here, in ruling against Brown, also went out of its way to not so subtly chastise the Board of Education for its application of rules and regulations. It not only characterized the Board’s application of rules to be “slipshod” but went out of its way to note that it could not address the issue of whether the Board overreacted to the situation.

Perhaps this case has two lessons. The first one is that work  rules prohibiting speech that is racially, ethnically or culturally charged or offensive does not infringe on an employee’s right to free speech. The second lesson here is that while the Board of Education prevailed, it may have been a case of winning despite itself. Clear rules and their appropriate application is always the best practice for employers.