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More Controversy About the N-Word

The Montgomery County Schools are eliminating a lesson plan designed to prepare students to read Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird, saying that it offends parents by using a racial slur -- the N-word -- in order to prepare students to read the book, which contains the word. The elimination reflects the growing national movement to ban the N-word. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that use of the N-word by an instructor was speech protected by the First Amendment in Hardy v. Jefferson Community College (2001). But that hasn't stopped parents from suing to ban books that use the N-word in cases such as Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District. And as I have noted before, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has argued that the word is totally banned in the workplace under federal racial harassment law, even though the Supreme Court made clear in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986) that the "mere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee" is not in and of itself harassment. The EEOC's attempt to ban speech which is protected in some contexts may expose the EEOC to First Amendment lawsuits under court decisions such as White v. Lee (2000), which allow civil rights bureaucrats to be personally sued for using antidiscrimination laws to suppress constitutionally-protected speech.