Chicago teacher’s “teachable moment” about racial slur leads to favorable “academic freedom” ruling

Federal courts rarely afford much weight to the “academic freedom” of public school teachers when they’re disciplined for what they say during class, but an Illinois district court has made an exception in a rather unlikely factual setting: A Chicago teacher suspended for saying the “n-word” in front of sixth-graders.

In Brown v. Chicago Board of Education, a federal judge in the Northern District of Illinois refused Sept. 25 to dismiss a middle-school teacher’s First Amendment challenge to a suspension imposed after he used the racially offensive word as part of a cautionary classroom discussion.

There was no allegation that English teacher Lincoln Brown directed the word toward any student as an insult — to the contrary, he was lecturing students about not using the term — but the school district suspended him for five days for violating a rule against “using verbally abusive language.” (Thank goodness he didn’t read Huckleberry Finn out loud, or he might have gone straight to jail.)

When Brown sued, alleging the suspension violated his First Amendment rights, the Chicago school district moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that a teacher’s remarks in the course of classroom instruction are the official speech of the school and not the constitutionally protected speech of an individual.

The school’s argument was rooted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 ruling, Garcetti v. Ceballos, in which the Court refused to protect a government employee against punishment for speech “made pursuant to the employee’s official duties.”

The Court declined in Garcetti to decide whether educators might be entitled to greater protection for their workplace speech on the grounds of “academic freedom.” Courts have recognized — but never precisely defined the boundaries of — academic freedom as an important element of promoting the free exchange of ideas necessary for learning.

In September, the California-based federal Ninth Circuit declined to apply the Garcetti rule to the speech of a Washington college professor who criticized his institution’s teaching methods. That decision, in the college context, was less groundbreaking than Judge Edmond E. Chang’s decision in Brown, since courts have been more hesitant to second-guess the discipline of educators at the K-12 level.

Of decisive significance in Brown’s case, there was no evidence that the school had a categorical rule against the use of the “N-word” before he was punished. Because school rules would not, on their face, have given Brown notice that mentioning the word in the teaching context was forbidden, Brown will have a chance to go forward with his First Amendment claim.

The Brown ruling is at a preliminary stage of the case, and the school still may ultimately prevail. But the judge’s willingness to recognize academic-freedom protection for a middle-school teacher is worth noting — and watching if the case is appealed.