A federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently waded into this thorny subject. The case is Burlington v. News Corp., in which a white television reporter for the Fox affiliate in Philadelphia alleges he was terminated for using the “n-word”.  The suit claims black employees who also had uttered the word were not even disciplined.

It all started during a discussion of another reporter’s coverage of a “symbolic burial” of the n-word, conducted by the Philadelphia NAACP Youth Council. The other reporter said the participants in the burial used the “n-word” “at least a hundred times or more during the course of the proceedings.” In response, the plaintiff asked, “does this mean we can finally use the word n_____”. Plaintiff said he was not intending to be offensive or provocative, but only want to suggest that using the actual word in the story would give the story more credence.  

Despite the context, other employees were offended and complained to management.   One person who was offended and complained, even though she had not been present at the newsroom meeting, was the plaintiff’s co-anchor, who was African American. The event apparently caused tension between the plaintiff and his co-anchor, which affected their on-air chemistry.   To complicate matters further, someone leaked to other media outlets that plaintiff had used the “n-word”, and stories were published about it in the local papers. 

The plaintiff presented evidence that three different black employees had used the “n-word” in the past, but had not been subject even to discipline.   The employer’s defense for treating plaintiff differently was the statements by the black employees had not incited complaints or resulted in negative publicity. Plaintiff contended the complaints and resulting publicity were the result of race discrimination that ultimately influenced management’s decision to terminate him. 

Ultimately, the court denied the employer’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, holding that the jury should decide the question whether the plaintiff was treated differently because of his race. In its conclusion, the court stated:

This case presents unique issues regarding an employer’s liability under Title VII for cultural assumptions about a word that is considered by many to be the most offensive in the English language. Plaintiff portrays himself as a victim of political correctness run amok, while Defendants portray themselves as employers who made the only choice they could in response to an employee who repeatedly uttered "the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon…resulting in problems in the workplace and significant adverse publicity.” Whether Plaintiff was a victim of discrimination or his own poor judgment is for a jury to decide….

Setting aside the troubling cultural and social implications this case presents, the management of Fox 29 faced a difficult and tenuous legal decision. Regardless of how they handled the case, there was no good outcome. If they terminated the white reporter, as they did, they face a race discrimination lawsuit. If they don’t discipline or terminate, they face a potential complaint from other employees for allowing a racially hostile work environment to exist.  

In these situations, often the best approach is to make what you think is the least worst decision…and get ready for the inevitable fallout.   The real lesson, however, is that employers need to be proactive in ensuring that the use of offensive language is always subject to discipline, regardless of the person’s race.

For additional discussion of this case, I recommend the following:

Jon Hyman, at Ohio Employer’s Law Blog

Peter Thompson, at Maine Employment Law Blog

Jottings by an Employer’s Lawyer