That’s So GayMSNBC’s website, among others carries a story that just begs to be blogged. It tells the unbelievable story of Rebekah Rice, a young woman who was the victim of religious harassment at school, and ended up in the principal’s office and disciplined for something she said as opposed to something that she actually did.

MSNBC relates these facts:

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.

I’m sorry, Rice gets a warning and a notation in her file because why? What about the overtly bigoted comments about her religious heritage? Not even a second thought. The message the state (acting through the school district here) sends is that its just fine to denigrate one’s religious heritage and belief system; but, don’t you dare say anything with the “sacred” word “gay” within the confines of your sentence structure. Or, you will face immediate disciplinary action.

There may be more to this incident than just the “gay” phrase Ms. Rice uttered. Bay Area Reporter, a gay and lesbian news source noted in an articled entitled “Mormon family sues Santa Rosa schools over pro-gay policies”:

A Santa Rosa couple, members of the ultra conservative Eagle Forum, is suing the Santa Rosa schools claiming their daughter suffered discrimination and harassment when she was a student at one of the district’s high schools.

The couple, Kathy and Elden Rice, said that their daughter, Rebekah Rice, faced teasing and threats from students and unfair disciplinary action by a teacher because of her religion and her parent’s opposition to school policies. The family belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santa Rosa.

The incidents cited in the lawsuit include a written referral for saying “that’s so gay,” an alleged threat by an openly lesbian student, a classroom presentation that included the R-rated film, Saving Private Ryan, and a mistaken search of Rebekah’s backpack.

BAR’s article claims that the Rice lawsuit alleges retaliation against Ms. Rice as well as her family for their religious heritage, beliefs, and community activism:

The non-jury trial began last week in Sonoma County Judge Elaine Rushing’s courtroom. In the lawsuit, which names teacher Claudine Gans-Rugebregt, Principal Mark Klick, and Assistant Principal Frances Kass Mason, the Rices said school officials retaliated against Rebekah Rice because of her parents’ involvement in protests against a Day of Dialogue held at Maria Carrillo High School in 2000.

On Tuesday, February 19, Orlean Koehle, president of the California Eagle Forum and a Santa Rosa substitute teacher, said “Elden [Rice] took the lead and essentially led the charge” when a small group of religiously conservative parents protested the event, especially the inclusion of a presentation on homosexuality.

Filed in December 2003, the lawsuit seeks an order for the school district to comply with education code regulations it allegedly violated, notification to every parent that the school failed to inform them about the showing of the R-rated film, unspecified monetary damages, and removal of the referral from Rebekah Rice’s school record.

Koehle, who had to be admonished several times for speaking out of turn, admitted that the Rices’s lawsuit was “partially to counter the pro-gay agenda in public schools.”

According to testimony last week by Rebekah Rice, in 2002 her humanities teacher, Gans-Rugebregt, wrote a referral after the teenager said “that’s so gay” in response to students teasing her about her Mormon religion.

According to Maria Carrillo Assistant Principal Ron Calloway, a referral goes into a separate discipline file, rather than a student’s permanent file, so it would not be part of student’s records when he or she applies to colleges.

The Rices maintain students do not typically receive a referral for a first offense and their daughter was being singled out because of her parents’ activism.

On Tuesday, Monique Cetard, a freshman at Maria Carrillo, said she heard another student exclaim “that’s so gay” in Gans-Rugebregt’s classroom and the teacher only admonished the student with a verbal warning.

“She [Gans-Rugebregt] said it’s sexual harassment and he [the student] would get a referral next time,” Cetard testified.

Klick, the principal, testified that he investigated the disciplinary action at Elden Rice’s request and he found that it was appropriate. According to school officials, teachers have the option to make a referral or issue a warning.

Then, in 2003, assistant principal Mason searched Rebekah’s backpack after a student reported that another student with the same first name had a knife and cigarettes in her backpack. In court last week, Mason admitted that the report mentioned a student with a different last name. The Rices, in their lawsuit, said this was another example of their daughter being targeted for her family’s beliefs.

Later in the year, Elden Rice called the school again, this time saying an openly lesbian student had threatened his daughter while speaking at an anti-hate crime rally. Students had organized this unofficial walkout, march, and rally in response to anti-racist graffiti that had recently been scrawled on the school walls.

According to testimony Tuesday by school principal Klick, he interviewed one of three students who had told Rebekah Rice about the alleged threat. Rice had been present at the rally but did not, apparently, hear the threat herself.

The student Klick interviewed, a part-time employee of Elden Rice at his dental clinic, told him the rally speaker said she had a black belt in karate and “the girl in my math class who said, ‘that’s so gay,’ I could kick your ass.”

But, after interviewing the rally speaker, an honor student with no history of causing trouble in school, Klick said he concluded that there was no real threat of physical danger to Rebekah Rice. Because the Rices were so concerned, however, he said he elected to “shadow” Rebekah, a process by which school administrators and security officers kept continual watch over the girl to protect her.

“Nicky [the lesbian student] said she didn’t remember her exact words, or making a threat to any student on campus,” Klick testified.

The trial is expected to continue through next week. According to Mark Peters, the attorney for the Santa Rosa High School District, Rushing has asked the attorneys to provide final comments in writing after the testimony and she will render her decision after she considers those statements.

Meanwhile, Elden Rice is scheduled to speak about his lawsuit March 31 at the annual education conference of the Eagle Forum of California. The organization’s Web site describes Rice as “a brave dentist who has a lawsuit with his school district because of their promoting the homosexual agenda.”

The Wisconsin State Journal had an interesting editorial today entitled “Don’t ask schools to be speech police”:

A Wisconsin State Journal editorial

A California school has landed in court over its disciplinary action against a student for using the expression “That’s so gay.”

The case offers a lesson for Wisconsin’s school officials: When dealing with teenagers and offensive language, a little common sense goes a long way. In contrast, speech police armed with inflexible policies produce unfair results and dangerous precedents.

The case at a Santa Rosa, Calif., high school began when classmates taunted Rebekah Rice about her Mormon upbringing, asking “Do you have 10 moms?”

Rebekah criticized the razzing with the phrase: “That’s so gay.”

Her response got her sent to the principal’s office. She received a warning, on the grounds that she violated the school’s prohibition against harassment of gays, and school officials placed a disciplinary notation in her file.

Her parents sued, claiming that the school vio lated Rebekah’s freedom of speech. They also argued that the school employed a double standard in disciplining her for harassment but failing to shield her from harassment over her religion.

Complicating the case is confusion about the phrase “That’s so gay.” It has become a common expression among teenagers who intend it as a dismissive criticism, similar to “That’s so stupid.”

However, it is offensive because it traces its origins to a prejudice against gays.

A gag order imposed by the judge has limited the information made public. But the evidence available suggests that school officials made a mess of things with an overreaction to Rebekah’s comment, possibly stemming from the beating of a gay student the year before.

Here is what should have happened.

First, school officials should have considered the event a “teachable moment” rather than an opportunity to impose discipline. Second, they should have aimed their education at both Rebekah and her classmates.

Officials should have warned Rebekah’s taunters that their derogatory comment about Mormons was offensive and hurtful. Furthermore, they should have explained to Rebekah that while she may not have intended her remark to be a slur against gays, it nonetheless was.

Officials should have explained that hurtful expressions have no place at school because every student has a right to feel safe from harassment.

Finally, they should have warned all that future incidents could bring disciplinary action.

I agree that the school could and should have used this opportunity as a teaching moment, rather than an object lesson in political correctness at the expense of an individual’s religious heritage and belief system. It’s not entirely clear the phrase is even meant as a derogatory term against one’s sexual preference. Salon.com, hardly a bastion of conservative thought has this background piece on “It’s So Gay”:

If you live in a decent-sized city and you are gay (or straight with a lot of gay friends), you or someone you know has declared something gay in the last week. Not gay as in homosexual, but gay in that grade-school “That is so gay!” way, i.e. lame, wrongheaded, queer in the original sense.

This is happening all around you. That woman’s hairdo? Gay. That book jacket? Gay. The fact that Dick and Lynne Cheney won’t talk about their lesbian daughter? Gay gay gay.

“I use it so much I don’t even think about it. It’s like coughing,” says Jose Muñoz, associate professor at New York University and author of “Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.”

“Everyone loves it,” says Cris Beam, a 28-year-old writer in Los Angeles. “I remember saying it at the Gay Pride Parade this year and it was hilarious — everyone was so thrilled to have it come back, because we’d all forgotten about it. We wanted to say it again and again and again.”

And it’s not just gay people who are saying it. Those gay-acting straight men are saying it, as are straight women who either have a critical mass of gay friends or have slept with enough women that they feel they can say whatever the hell they want.

“There are so many boundaries that people my age, especially girls my age, don’t really recognize,” says 25-year-old Sunny Neater, an artist in Chicago. “The whole labeling of gay, queer, whatever seems looser.”

“That is so gay” has made a few pop culture appearances, too. In the movie “Loser,” one of the geeky hero’s cool roommates tells him not to be “so gay.” On an episode of “The Simpsons,” Nelson kisses Lisa and his friends say, “Ewww, you’re kissing a girl, that’s gay.” Will, of “Will and Grace,” told his best friend that his outfit was “so gay.”

This small linguistic revolution is, of course, part of the tradition of groups using derogatory names among themselves. But it’s also different: The closest approximation to “wop” or “nigger” isn’t “gay” but “faggot” or “dyke” — both of which have gone through their own, separate reintroductions into gay, and gay-friendly, vocabularies.

The difference between “faggot” and “That is so gay” is that the former has a long and nasty association with violence; it’s a word adults use and have used for other adults. By contrast, “That is so gay” evokes childhood — a time that may have been painful but is long past. That distance makes it possible not only to reclaim the phrase but also to reclaim it as an insult.

What does it mean exactly–well, according to Salon.com:

What does it mean, exactly?

“It means ‘too sincere,'” says Rakoff. “Lacking in irony and knowingness, which is funny, since those are stereotypically said to be gay specialties.”

“It means odd, weird,” says Toni Long, a 30-year-old law student.

“Weak, boring, unrowdy,” says Neater.

“It means dorky,” says Beam. “Uncool. But not dorky as in ‘femmy’ or gender inappropriate, the way ‘faggot’ did. Faggot meant a particular kind of person, whereas gay could apply to a whole bunch of different things.”

So everyone knows what it means, but everyone thinks it means something slightly different. That’s another part of the pleasure of the phrase: that it re-creates, for a moment, a time when gay didn’t have such a fixed meaning, when the word was so vague that it could refer to a game or a shirt or an idea.

Doesn’t sound too much like a sexual orientation slur at all. The Santa Rosa School District officials went off the deep end on this one. I don’t know whether it was in retaliation for the Rice family activism or not. Regardless, the district’ response to afford absolute protection to some undefined or alleged homophobic comment, and their complete lack of concern to First Amendment protected religious belief is appalling.

I fully support the family’s lawsuit against the school district, and its employees. They demonstrated incredible insensitivity in disciplining Ms. Rice, yet allowing the religiously bigoted comments of her class mates to pass without so much as a comment. That’s so gay!

Other sources worthy of note:

Law.com

Chicago Ray

MotherTalkers

BloggingBaby

Connor’s Conundrums

Herald.net

Millennial Star