Recently, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois addressed whether a teacher could be disciplined for using the word “n*gger” in a sixth grade classroom. In Brown v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the court held that a public school teacher’s First Amendment right to free speech was not violated when he was suspended without pay for fostering a class discussion of the word. The court held the speech was not protected because it was in the course of the teacher’s job duties and because the Board of Education prohibited the word in all CPS schools.
Lincoln Brown was a sixth grade grammar teacher at the time of his suspension. Before his suspension, Mr. Brown intercepted a note being passed between students and read part of it aloud to demonstrate the bullying nature of the note. From this, a discussion of the “N” word and race ensued. During this discussion, the Principal at Mr. Brown’s school stepped into the classroom and observed Mr. Brown use the “N” word mid-sentence. The principal left the classroom, and upon returning, observed the class discussion on race. Mr. Brown returned to his grammar lesson after the discussion.
After observing this incident, the Board determined that Mr. Brown should be suspended for five days without pay. Mr. Brown then challenged the suspension in court, asserting that it violated his First Amendment right to free speech. Early on in the case, the Board filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Brown’s claim. The court denied that motion, finding that discovery was necessary to determine if there was a rule against using the word before Mr. Brown was disciplined. If there was not, and if the word was only banned after Br. Brown was disciplined, he might be able to establish a violation of his free speech rights.
After discovery was completed, the Board filed a motion for summary judgment, which the court granted. The court found that Mr. Brown was aware that use of the “N” word was banned throughout CPS and that he was not allowed to use the word even in furtherance of a teachable moment. Thus, even when used in that context, and even though not used in a verbally abusive way or a way that caused psychological or physical injury or harm to his students, Mr. Brown’s use of the word violated the CPS rule and was specifically prohibited. Moreover, Mr. Brown’s use of the word was in the course of his job duties and veered from his approved lessons. Because public employers, such as school districts, 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 employer’s duties,” and because Mr. Brown knew he was prohibited from the using the word and that doing so would deviate from his approved job duties, his speech was not protected by the First Amendment.
This case is an important reminder that even though teachers and other school staff do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, school districts nonetheless retain significant authority to limit potentially disruptive speech by employees and to discipline them when they violate those rules. In order to do so, school district should ensure that they have clear rules and guidelines regarding the expectations on employee speech in the classroom.