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"That’s so gay" prompts student lawsuit

Student sent to principal’s office insists it was not a homophobic putdown

The Associated Press

Updated: 9:41 p.m. ET Feb. 28, 2007

SANTA ROSA, Calif. - When a few classmates razzed Rebekah Rice about her Mormon upbringing with questions such as, "Do you have 10 moms?" she shot back: "That's so gay."

Those three words landed the high school freshman in the principal's office and resulted in a lawsuit that raises this question: When do playground insults used every day all over America cross the line into hate speech that must be stamped out?

After Rice got a warning and a notation in her file, her parents sued, claiming officials at Santa Rosa's Maria Carillo High violated their daughter's First Amendment rights when they disciplined her for uttering a phrase "which enjoys widespread currency in youth culture," according to court documents.

Testifying last week about the 2002 incident, Rice, now 18, said that when she uttered those words, she was not referring to anyone's sexual orientation. She said the phrase meant: "That's so stupid, that's so silly, that's so dumb."

But school officials say they took a strict stand against the putdown after two boys were paid to beat up a gay student the year before.

"The district has a statutory duty to protect gay students from harassment," the district's lawyers argued in a legal brief. "In furtherance of this goal, prohibition of the phrase 'That's so gay' ... was a reasonable regulation."

Superior Court Judge Elaine Rushing plans to issue a ruling in the non-jury trial after final written arguments are submitted in April. Her gag order prevents the two sides from discussing the case.

Derogatory terms for homosexuality have long been used as insults. But the landscape has become confusing in recent years as minority groups have tried to reclaim terms like "queer," "ghetto" and the n-word.

In recent years, gay rights advocates and educators have tried teaching students that it is hurtful to use the word "gay" as an all-purpose term for something disagreeable. At Berkeley High School, a gay student club passed out buttons with the words "That's so gay" crossed out to get their classmates to stop using them.

Rick Ayers, a retired teacher who helped compile and publish the "Berkeley High School Slang Dictionary," a compendium of trendy teen talk circa 2001, said educating students about offensive language is preferable to policing their speech.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this girl didn't even know the origin of that term," he said. "The kids who get caught saying it will claim it's been decontextualized, but others will say, `No, you know what that means.' It's quite talked about."

Rice's parents, Elden and Katherine Rice, also claim the public high school employed a double-standard because, they say, administrators never sought to shield Rebekah from teasing based on Mormon stereotypes.

In addition, the Rices say their daughter was singled out because of the family's conservative views on sexuality. They are seeking unspecified damages and want the disciplinary notation expunged from Rebekah's school record.

Eliza Byard, deputy executive director of the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said nearly nine out of 10 gay students her organization surveyed in 2005 reported hearing "That's so gay" or "You're so gay" frequently.

"It bothers them a lot," Byard said. "As odd or funny as the phrase sounds, imagine what it feels like to be in a setting where you consistently hear it used to describe something undesirable or stupid, and it also refers to you."

She said it is OK to discipline students for using the phrase after efforts have been made to educate them.

"The job of a school is to deal proactively and consistently with all forms of bullying, name-calling and harassment," she said.

Jordan Lorence, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, agreed "That's so gay" carries a negative meaning and said he would not want his children to say it. But he said formal discipline is not the answer.

"Reasonable people should say, `Let's put a stop to this kind of search-and-destroy mission by school officials for everything that is politically incorrect,'" he said.

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We've got a show on Saturday afternoons called, "If by gay you mean totally awesome".

on www.chly.ca

It's a pretty clever name.

With this article though, the ignorance shown by someone referring to something as gay is staggering. I don't know how many times certain folks on here(zero) have gone on tangents calling everything gay or faggy in a derogitory way, and then think that this can be justified by saying that gay really means stupid or lame. What??? Try that excuse with any other minority and see what the reaction is.

In this case though they are going overboard.

Pardon the rant.

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With this article though, the ignorance shown by someone referring to something as gay is staggering. I don't know how many times certain folks on here(zero) have gone on tangents calling everything gay or faggy in a derogitory way, and then think that this can be justified by saying that gay really means stupid or lame. What??? Try that excuse with any other minority and see what the reaction is.

In this case though they are going overboard.

I agree on both accounts (i.e. that I'm appalled by how widespread the term remains, and that in this case things have gone overboard).

A guy at work was making seriously inappropriate remarks about Jews to me (I'm Jewish) and another Jewish employee. I don't think he meant real harm but he was saying some offensive stuff...at least, we discussed it and we were offended by it. And really, I'm not a terribly sensitive guy when it comes to this stuff. So we took it to the boss and told him we didn't want to start any trouble, but this dude was crossing the line with these remarks almost daily. The boss basically told us we should lighten up on the issue because, he said, most people say things 'like that' that they don't mean, and gave the example of calling things 'gay' to mean 'bad'. I let the issue drop but should have told him that nobody I know uses 'gay' to mean 'bad' anymore, it's just common sense.

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The boss basically told us we should lighten up on the issue because, he said, most people say things 'like that' that they don't mean

That is a staggeringly piss-poor response from an employer. He should be poked in the eye. Thrice. With dirty fingers.

"The job of a school is to deal proactively and consistently with all forms of bullying, name-calling and harassment," she said.

Incidentally, what corrective action was taken towards the students 'razzing' Rice about her Mormonism? If the article is any indication, not a thing.

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Indeed, this is a blatant over-reaction in response to PCing the gay issue. Hey, I'm gay friendly and think that using gay as a derogatory term is uncool (or nigga, bitch etc...) but this story is about frosh in high school, what is that... like 14 or 15 yrs old? Their impressionable and pop-culture-prone minds should not be punished for society's problems.

cheers

adambrot

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see, i guess that's the point. when is it inappropriate to use certain terms? i like djmelbatoast's spin on it. if its used in a derogatory way, its not cool. personally, i had no problem with ollie's quip because it was clearly intended to be humourously provocative. but, who the hell am I to say, and i guess thats the other point. what's offensive to me might not be to someone else and vicey versey and who "decides". also, if one is "in" the group, are they "more" allowed to make such comments than those not "in" the group?

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:) .

I'm also surprised to see the Mormon-razz wasn't addressed too, though.

I still hear that kind of language in college, too. Handily, it being an English class, I can grab that by the horns and talk about expletives - the word means, grammatically, a place-holder - words that have no clearly definable meaning except to satisfy a grammatical requirement in a sentence (like "there", in "there's a bird in the tree", acting as the grammatical subject), or, in this sense, as a word that has at best a fuzzy semantic meaning, but which more accurate words could replace (coming more out of habit and laziness than anything).

There's a story I love in Malcolm X's story - in his street-hustling days, apparently, he had the habit of using nothing but expletives when he talked, until he landed in jail and someone rather wiser than he was at the time asked him if he was stupid, because he could never get beyond those words to say with better clarity what he really meant. Then he spent much of the rest of his prison time copying out the dictionary to build up his vocabulary. Turned him into a pretty handy public speaker, evidently.

Sorry if I've used that story before. I'm a teacher. It's my job to be repetitive. My job. My Job. Repetitiveness is my job.

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phishtaper brings up some good points.

policing language is a pretty dangerous thing. what one word means to me, could mean something entirely different to another. i really can't grasp how we can enforce appropriate language on an entire nation of individuals. do we now incorporate the dictionary under law? how can we reach out to every single household and explain to them what the genuine definition of a word is and tell them that using that word in any other circumstance or under any other meaning is completely unacceptable? to me, that seems completely ridiculous.

i find the more we cater to the politically correct, the more we lose sight of what the real issues are. the real issue above is that a child was bullied for being a mormon, not that the bullier used the term 'gay'.

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i find the more we cater to the politically correct, the more we lose sight of what the real issues are. the real issue above is that a child was bullied for being a mormon, not that the bullier used the term 'gay'.

Fair enough - mainly. I don't think one issue outweighs the other, though. The fact that "gay" is used in a derogatory sense without many people batting an eye - or even seeing them throw up resistance to recognising it as an issue worth raising - is a good indicator of what people who do identify as gay have to deal with a lot of the time. And the fact, too, that Mormons still have to put up with overt razzing after achieving the level of success they have - and remember, Joseph Smith was killed by an angry mob - speaks volumes about our inability to deal with difference.

I find it helpful to remember that the term "political correctness" was coined by the Left to keep their own from using dumb, superficial terms and arguments and not consciously thinking through what the real issues at stake were, independent of language (the rights of people to equal access in the public square, the raising of awareness of certain kinds of violence, and so on); people on the Right then took PC to be what the Left's intentional mandate was. Talk about a loss of irony.

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I find it a little hard to wrap my head around this because the word gay, by true definition, has nothing to do with homosexuality, and only takes on it's reference because of cultural influence. And furthermore, the use of the word gay in this context was meant to imply "stupid, silly, dumb", which is ANOTHER definition imposed by cultural influence.

I suppose the latter just needs a little more time for the older folk 'in charge' to catch on!

Stupid word policing.

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Well for someone that gets up in arms over the term Happy Holidays you certainly don't have any problem with offending or marginalizing gay people. Gay may have originally meant happy, but bitch originally meant dog. Trying to normalize gay as an insult meanning lame or dumb is like trying to bring back the word niggardly to mean cheap. I've got deja vu here Birdy, I think we've done this before.

Anyways, sueing this young girl for uttering derogitory words is ridiculus, especially considering that the other children involved were doing the same thing.

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Well for someone that gets up in arms over the term Happy Holidays you certainly don't have any problem with offending or marginalizing gay people.

For me, this has nothing to do with "offending or marginalizing gay people." The person who used the word was NOT referring to homosexuals!!!

Go back and read that Happy Holidays thread if you must, but my argument there, and my argument here is the same thing! Stop the PC train!

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Is it "policing" if one makes oneself aware of all the levels that a word or phrase can operate on, and speak responsibly? I'd think it has more to do with sensitivity, maturity, and intelligence.

I agree; however, I do not think a court of law can uphold "sensitivity, maturity, and intelligence", nor should it.

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Using 'gay' as an insult ALWAYS refers to homosexuals. Even if you aren't directly talking about homosexuality.

Sorry, but NO it does not. How can you speak for the intent of thousands and thousands of people who use that word?

That seems a little much.

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It's not a little much. If you use the term to mean: lame, stupid, dumb, weak, annoying, embarrassing etc, etc

Who do you think that is in reference to? The concept of happiness?

I agree that you shouldn't have the courts throwing people in jail for using the wrong words, but to suggest that "gay", when used as an insult, is not an offensive word is a joke.

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