Teacher’s Slur Wasn’t Protected, Judge Says

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A 13-year-old African-American girl sued a middle school teacher for retaliation after he used a racist epithet in a history class, only for the teacher to cite free speech protection.

That was the claim defendant Steven Carnine made in court papers when a former Paul Revere Middle School eighth-grader sued him after he told her in his majority white classroom that people hated Abraham Lincoln because he was a “n-i-g-g-e-r lover.”

Carnine then leaned in close to the 13-year-old and added “Isn’t that right?” she said in a federal discrimination complaint.

Doe said Carnine used the slur to retaliate against her after her father complained to school officials about Carnine’s behavior in other classes. He had talked disdainfully about Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, telling the class that Brown “was a thug and he got what he deserved,” according to the complaint.

In another class where students discussed racial stereotypes, Carnine told the class that “‘Black people are judged for not being smart because they are not smart. A lot of them are just athletes,’” her complaint states.

Carnine asked the court to throw out Doe’s retaliation claim for his use of the racial epithet, arguing that other students in the mainly white class had a right to hear “offensive ideas,” and that he was entitled to immunity as a school official.

“Carnine further argues that he has a First Amendment right to present even offensive ideas to his history class,” U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder wrote in Feb. 27 order.

But Snyder rejected Carnine’s motion for summary judgment, finding that he did not make clear how a “reasonable teacher would perceive their First Amendment rights as protecting against suit for First Amendment retaliation or racial discrimination.”

“Although defendant characterizes his conduct as merely a lesson about a dark period of American history and the bigoted views held by others, there are material issues of disputed fact as to whether Carnine’s conduct was merely an ill-considered teaching method or intentional retaliation for a student’s protected speech,” Snyder wrote. “In this case, the court is not called upon to determine whether Carnine’s statements did more harm than good as a lesson on bigotry. The court is called upon to determine whether Carnine may have violated clearly established rights.”

Snyder added, however, that the evidence supported Doe’s claim that Carnine uttered the slur in retaliation.

The court rejected Carnine’s motion for immunity. She also rejected Carnine and school officials’ remaining motions for summary judgment. Doe can proceed with her claims of racial discrimination, freedom of speech and equal protection.

Doe’s attorney Sam Brown with Hennig Ruiz said Snyder got the ruling right.

“Judge Snyder’s denial of the entirety of the LAUSD’s motion demonstrates that the district’s conduct and the conduct of the individual defendants was unacceptable and they should be held to account for the very real harm they have caused our client and her family,” Brown said.

L.A. Unified spokeswoman Shannon Haber said the district was reviewing the court’s order.

“The judge’s decision is not the final word in this case,” Haber said. “The district took the student’s complaint seriously, took appropriate action and undertook extraordinary efforts to keep the student safe.”

Doe first sued in Los Angeles County Superior Court on March 18, 2015. The case was dismissed later that year and she refiled it in Federal Court in January 2016.

As news broke of the lawsuit, up to 100 protesters, including parents, came out in support of Carnine and yelled, “Bring Him Back” and “Save Carnine,” according to Doe. She said the protests turned ugly, and she saw people holding signs or wearing T-shirts stating: “Down with black girl” and “[Jane Doe] is a B.”

Doe says school officials and administrators did little to reprimand students. The protests culminated with 500 students walking out and demonstrating one day in March 2015.

The protests shook her so much, Doe says, that she did not attend school for a week. She suffered from crying fits and had trouble sleeping.

In March 2015, Paul Revere suspended Carnine for eight days but he returned to the classroom after he appealed. He no longer works within Los Angeles Unified, according to court records.