Student’s defamation claim denied over ‘prostitute’ remark

Monday, July 2, 2012

A teacher’s remark likening a gum-chewing student to a prostitute was not defamation, a California appeals court has ruled.

Rejecting student Sofia Rasheed’s lawsuit, the California Court of Appeals reasoned that the teacher’s comment — “You remind me of a prostitute chewing her gum” — did not actually state an objective fact.

In February 2009, Rasheed, then in the eighth grade, was chewing gum in her history class when teacher Robin Hennen made the comment. Rasheed immediately swallowed her gum. She filed a lawsuit against Hennen and Banning Unified School District, which is east of San Bernardino, alleging that the remark caused her emotional trauma.

In February 2011, a trial court dismissed both the teacher and the school district from the lawsuit. Rasheed then appealed to the state appeals court, which affirmed the lower court in its June 22 decision in Rasheed v. Banning Unified School District.

Rasheed contended that she understood Hennen’s words to mean that she was falsely being called a prostitute and that her classmates understood the comment as such. But the appeals court said an actionable claim for defamation required an assertion of fact. The appeals court determined that “Hennen’s statement cannot be regarded as actually calling plaintiff a prostitute.”

Hennen’s remark “did not either implicitly or explicitly impugn plaintiff’s sexual chastity,” the court continued, noting that Hennen was simply trying to get Rasheed to quit chewing gum in class. Regardless of how Rasheed or her classmates said they interpreted the comment, “there is still simply no way any reasonable 13-year-old could interpret the statement as an objective statement of fact that plaintiff was a prostitute.”

The appeals court said that although Hennen’s comment was “inappropriate,” it was not defamation. The appeals court also rejected the claim against the school district for negligence or fault. Here, the California appeals court warned that punishing school districts for every negative comment by a teacher would be problematic.

The court wrote that “the First Amendment implications are staggering, as a contrary holding would significantly chill teachers’ freedom to communicate with their students.”

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