Teacher suspended for lecturing about the N-word

"Stupid but constitutional" says the 7th Circuit, upholding the suspension of a teacher who – wanting to explain why using the N-word is hurtful and must not be used – used the N-word during a classroom discussion. Brown v Chicago Board of Education (7th Cir 06/02/2016). Some kids were passing notes in class, including one that contained music lyrics with the offensive word. Spotting this as an excellent teaching moment, teacher Lincoln Brown engaged the class in a discussion. During that discussion Brown himself used the word. (Well, it's tricky to talk about the word without actually using it.) The problem was that the school district has a policy that prohibits “[u]sing verbally abusive language to or in front of students.” and “using racial, cultural, ethnic, or religious epithets, or threatening language.” The school board suspended Brown for 5 days for violating these rules.

What about free speech, the 1st amendment, and all that? Sorry, the US Supreme Court has said – Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006) – that whether a public employee’s speech is constitutionally protected depends on “whether the employee spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” Here, the teacher was speaking as a teacher – that is to say, as an employee – not as a citizen. As the 7th Circuit explained:

"Here, Brown gave his impromptu lesson on racial epithets in the course of his regular grammar lesson to a sixth grade class. His speech was therefore pursuant to his official duties. That he deviated from the official curriculum does not change this fact. *** Moreover, maintaining classroom order is one of Brown’s most basic duties as a teacher. *** To the extent that Brown’s discussion of racial slurs was an attempt to quell student misbehavior, it was still pursuant to his official duties."

"[N]ot everything that is undesirable, annoying, or even harmful amounts to a violation of the law, much less a constitutional problem. Today’s case provides another illustration of that fact."