Should a Public Middle School Grammar Teacher Be Able to Teach a Lesson About the “N Word”?

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Posted in: Education

This past September, a Northern District of Illinois Federal District Court Judge ruled that Chicago public middle-school teacher Lincoln Brown—who had taught a lesson about the “N Word” in his classroom, and was subsequently suspended without pay for five days for doing so—stated a First Amendment claim against the local school board where he taught, due to that suspension.

To be more specific, Brown regularly taught a sixth-grade grammar class, and one day, in his class, he observed some of his students arguing over a note that was being passed among them.  As any good teacher would and should, Brown confiscated the note.  He also read a part of the note aloud in class, which revealed that the note included offensive rap lyrics.  Brown then shared with his students the fact that he himself listened to rap music, but not to rap music that degraded women or invoked racial stereotypes.

These topics then led to another: the related topic the use of the “N Word” in rap music.  In the course of the discussion, Brown explained to his students why the use of the “N Word” has been, and continues to be, controversial.

My bet is that this might have been one of the most interesting and memorable lessons that Brown’s students learned that year.  (Notably, too, the lesson was related to the subject matter of Brown’s class: grammar, which, of course, encompasses how things can, are, or ought to be, said.  Of course, had the same discussion arisen in, say, math class, the teacher would have been remiss in not cutting it off.)

But the school’s principal unfortunately disagreed with Brown on the value of the “N Word” discussion, and delivered to him a Notice of Pre-discipline Hearing, charging him with violating school rules.

Then, in about two weeks, Brown received a Notice of Disciplinary Action from the principal, charging him with the offense of “using verbally abusive language to or in front of students.”  Brown received a five-day suspension without pay, and received an instruction never to use the “N Word” at the school, no matter what the context.

Brown appealed the suspension via school procedures, but lost.  Brown then brought this federal court lawsuit.

Brown’s First Amendment Claims

Having described the pertinent facts, I’ll now focus on the First Amendment issues that this scenario raises, and that ground Brown’s challenge to the suspension that he endured.

A key issue here, under First Amendment analysis, is the question whether Brown’s “N Word” remarks were  “made pursuant to his….official duties.”   That principle, as the court notes, comes from the Supreme Court’s ruling in Garcetti v. Ceballos. The court here held that Brown’s discussion of the “N Word” was indeed within his official duties, for the following reasons: (1) he was at his workplace; (2) he was there during work hours; (3) and he made the statements to his intended audience, his students.

The court also noted that now, at the motion-to-dismiss stage, when all allegations of the complaint must be taken as true, the court must take as true the following allegations:  (1) that Brown used rap lyrics as part of his pedagogy in the lesson at issue; and (2) that Brown, rather than seeking to offend anyone, was instead seeking to convey a lesson about the power of language.

The court here also noted precedents that seem to cut in favor of the uniqueness of the individual teacher and his or her methods, even while, at the same time, noting the need for courts to defer to school boards, at least to some extent.  In addition, the court here noted some relevant school-speech cases from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  One of those precedents warns school districts not to focus overmuch on “random classroom comments.”  While Brown’s comments were not random at all, they did seemed to be isolated, with the school district apparently unable to prove any pattern of such remarks on his part during his time as a teacher at the school.

The District Judge here also noted related precedents indicating that schools should not be places of strict orthodoxy, but rather should allow varying viewpoints to be presented. The judge also noted that it is not enough to allow a teacher to present varying viewpoints, while stifling her own.  And finally, a principle that seems apropos here is one that eschews the imposition of a “pall of orthodoxy” upon the whole curriculum.  In Brown’s case, he stuck with his subject but gave it a twist—proving that his pedagogy, at least in this instance, to be strikingly creative, and far from orthodoxy’s pall.

  • ingeborg oppenheimer

    very interesting! here we see how a concrete interpretation – the deeming of just the mention of “the n word” as contrary to policy irrespective of context – can be seen to justify a teacher’s suspension. the very fact that the use of the word occurred in the context of an effort to provoke students’ thinking about how racism, and other negative meanings, can come through in differing forms of artistic expression is totally ignored by school authorities. this item demonstrates so clearly one of the problems with our public school system: it encourages – nay, requires – the acceptance without thinking of whatever rule is on the books. the ramifications of rules, perhaps not in awareness at the time they are written, are not allowed entry.

  • EricWelch

    One might argue that this interesting article perpetuates the problem. Why is the “n” word used to replace “nigger.”? Obviously, the teacher was trying to demystify the word by explaining how it was being used in rap and so actually saying “nigger” instead of euphemizing it in quotes helps to place the various meanings of the word in a larger context. Are we now to replace the word in Huckleberry Finn or Conrad’s “Nigger of the Narcissus” with “n-word of the Narcissus”? Words get their meaning not just from context but also the cultural baggage each of us brings to a word. We have to start a discussion about racism and the importance of language, but hiding the real word fools no one yet diminishes the debate and promotes the “pall of orthodoxy.”

  • Clark Wolf

    The use/mention distinction should be relevant here, especially since “use” of abusive language is specifically proscribed in the rule.