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.
A confusing set of terms
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.
Daughter singled out, parents say
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.