Brown v. Chicago Bd. of Educ., No. 15-1857 (7th Cir. 2016)Annotate this Case
The Board of Education has a written policy that forbids teachers from using racial epithets in front of students, no matter the purpose. Brown, a Chicago sixth grade teacher, caught students passing a note in class. The note contained music lyrics with the offensive word “nigger.” Brown used the episode as an opportunity to conduct an apparently well‐intentioned discussion of why such words must not be used. The school principal happened to observe the lesson. Brown was suspended and brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Two of his theories were rejected on summary judgment: that his suspension violated his First Amendment rights, and that the school’s policy was so vague that his suspension violated the substantive due process component of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, stating “not everything that is undesirable, annoying, or even harmful amounts to a violation of the law, much less a constitutional problem.” Public‐employee speech is subject to a special set of First Amendment rules. Brown himself emphasized that he was speaking as a teacher, an employee, not as a citizen, so his suspension did not implicate his First Amendment rights. Brown’s surprise at being disciplined, along with a few episodes of non‐enforcement, do not support a substantive due process claim.