Monday, June 6, 2016

Teacher’s Use of “N-Word” During School Lesson Not Protected Speech

It is fairly well settled law, often referred to as the Garcetti rule after the case that established it, that employee speech is only protected if the employee speaks as a citizen or about an issue of public importance. While an employee does not speak as a citizen when he makes statements pursuant to his official duties, the Garcetti rule does not apply in the same way to a case involving speech related to scholarship or teaching.

In the case of Brown v. Chicago Board of Education, decided last week by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the teacher, Lincoln Brown, discovered students in his class passing notes containing the word n****r. He took the opportunity to give an impromptu lesson to the class of sixth graders about racial sensitivity. During the lesson, he used the “n-word”. The Board of Ed subsequently suspended him for five days for his use of the word. Teacher Brown sued, alleging among other things, that his words amounted to protected speech as they were part of his lesson.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree with Brown’s argument and confirmed a prior ruling that a teacher’s speech, made in the course of presenting a lesson, is neither speech as a citizen nor speech about a matter of public importance or concern and is therefore not protected. Although an impromptu lesson as a result of classroom misbehavior, the court found that maintaining classroom order was one of his most basic duties. Thus, to the extent his discussion of racial slurs was an attempt to stop student misbehavior, it was still pursuant to his official duties.

In finding for the defendant Board of Education, the court observed “[T]he Board may have acted in a short-sighted way when it suspended him for his effort to educate the students about a sensitive and socially important issue, but it did not trample on his First Amendment rights.”