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No Racial Slurs Allowed by Chicago School, Teacher Firing Upheld

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 08, 2016 11:05 AM

In the ironically-named case of Brown v. Board of Ed., a teacher who was suspended from his position for using the N word in his classroom (for educational purposes) has no First Amendment claim, according to the recent Seventh Circuit ruling. Also, for related reasons, the court says the teacher suffered no violation of his due process. It's Brown v. Board of Education again, but it still has yet another layer of appeal left to go.

The ruling will upset many of those who have pointed out repeatedly the gray line that exists between proper use of language in a setting that has restricted Free Speech interests.

Brown's Teachable Moment

Brown was a sixth grade teacher until he was suspended from his position by the Chicago Board of Education. The incident started when he caught students passing explicit song lyrics in class that featured use of the word "n*gger." He took this opportunity to hold a conversation about the word's social import and why it ought not to be used. As it happened, the school principal just happened to be observing the lesson and Brown's suspension followed.

The Chicago Board of Education has a strict no-racial-epithets policy that forbids the use of such terms in front of students no matter the purpose. This was the basis used for Brown's suspension.

Brown sued the BOE and argued two theories: First Amendment violations and due process violations.

Re First Amendment

The circuit described the plaintiff's First Amendment claim as "fail[ing] right out of the gate," and reminded readers that public-employee speech is subject to more stringent restrictions than the speech and conduct of laymen. Ironically for Brown, it would have been better if he'd argued that he was attempting to speak out about racism in class rather than attempting to convey a message about racism to the class as a teacher.

The court found that because he was still within the context of a teacher and educator at the time he held his discussion, the widest freedoms under the First Amendment did not apply.

Re Due Process

Brown's due process claim also failed because, again, of the ironic strength of the racial epithet he attempted to shine a light on. Brown argued that his due process had been violated in no small part because of the vagueness of the BOE policy of "racial epithet." The irony lay in the court's finding that any reasonable person would have certainly understood that "n*gger" is one of the most "reviled" racial epithets in the English language. The use of that word could not be subject to any reasonable argument of vagueness and due process lost.

The court noted that although Brown's intentions were good, he did not enjoy the privileges of complete free speech.

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