A high school teacher accused of using a Spanish vulgarity in his classroom shouldn't have to pay a $15,000 fine, but $1,000 is a proper punishment, a judge said in a ruling filed Monday.
"The penalty was disproportionate" in Carlos Garcia's case, state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe wrote.
Garcia, a history teacher, was suspended for months and fined last year after students said he repeatedly used a Spanish curse word, sometimes when the class was unruly. He denied it and said a court interpreter miscast the term during a disciplinary hearing.
The word's literal translation refers to female sexual organs, but its usage varies by age, country of origin and individual standards. Some speakers consider it offensive. To others, it's a fairly harmless expression of frustration or joy.
Among immigrants from the Dominican Republic, where Garcia and many of his former students or their families came from, the word is so commonly used that it became the focus of a popular online video clip. The video, called "Speak Fluent Dominican," includes the host giving examples of the term's usage in contexts ranging from "looking fine" to "stop bothering me!" to "I heard your mother died. I am so sorry."
Garcia's lawsuit argued that a disciplinary hearing officer inappropriately relied on a court interpreter's view of the term, which the interpreter equated with some heavy-duty English expletives.
"There's such a divergent definition of it in the culture here, even among Hispanics, so the context makes all the difference," Garcia's lawyer, Sergio Villaverde, said Monday. "They (school system officials) were swatting flies with a sledgehammer."
City lawyer Gail Mulligan said attorneys were weighing options after seeing the ruling. They have said Garcia's language was inappropriate and the fine was warranted.
The judge said she doubted his alleged use of the word "tended to cause fear or physical or mental distress or belittle or subject the students to ridicule."
Garcia, a teacher for about 17 years, is back teaching at another school, his lawyer said.
"He's ready to put this chapter in his life behind him," Villaverde said.