NEW ORLEANS – To hear former Benjamin Franklin High School substitute teach Ryan Brown’s version of it, he was simply trying to have a discussion about why he couldn't use a racial term often exchanged among black men in day-to-day conversation and rap music.
The school’s administrators saw something else, though, in a cellphone video of a verbal showdown between Brown and a student. Hours later he was escorted off campus and left without a job.
Now Brown has filed a federal lawsuit against Franklin and its principal, alleging his right to free speech was impeded and asking for his job back. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday.
A cellphone video posted to social media on May 5 recorded a student, who is black, getting more agitated with Brown as he repeated a racial term that that the student said Brown could not say since he’s white.
Just before the video began, Brown’s lawsuit claims, he “attempted to engage the student in an understanding of how the word ‘n****’ had been commoditized by its regular usage in slang and rap music.”
The exchange only became “charged” after “student A stood up and began to slam his desk on the floor before he left the room,” the lawsuit reads.
Brown said he reported the incident to Patrick Widhalm, the Gentilly high school’s principal, after the student stormed out of the classroom and could not be found.
Two hours later, Brown was escorted off campus as he was preparing to coach a game, he claimed in his lawsuit.
When the school issued a news released three days later, it said Brown submitted his resignation. But Brown claimed he was fired and that Widhalm left out a part of his report that “determined the incident was not the result of racial animus.”
“The failure of Ben Franklin to include this information … was made with actual malice.”
Brown also said the decision to fire him was meant to calm outcry from parents and graduates who were upset after seeing the video online or in media reports.
Widhalm declined to comment Tueday evening, saying in an e-mail to WWL-TV that he had not yet had time to review the lawsuit or meet with the school's attorney.
Brown is seeking to be reinstated at Franklin, where he said he was set to become a full-time staff member, and damages related to loss of income and “mental anguish, emotional distress, pain and suffering, humiliation, embarrassment, and injury to reputation.”
Brown is being represented by Michael Fawer.