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A maligned and often misunderstood word is at the center of a defamation lawsuit argued in Mendocino County Superior Court Friday.

Dennis Boaz, a Ukiah history teacher who lives in Sonoma County, is suing the county's school districts and officials for branding him a racist when he used the word "niggardly" to describe 2009 labor negotiations with the Ukiah Unified School District.

"The tenor of the (district office's) negotiation tactics have become increasingly negative and niggardly," Boaz, then the teachers' union's lead negotiator, wrote in a letter to members updating them on salary talks.

Niggardly means stingy or miserly and has no etymological relation to race or color. But it has a long history of mistaken identity.

Boaz said his reputation as a teacher and as an (as yet unpublished) writer were damaged by the allegation and contributed to his decision to retire from teaching this year.

"I am not a racist," said Boaz, a former lawyer who once represented convicted killer Gary Gilmore, who drew attention for trying to expedite his own execution.

Boaz said his lawsuit was sparked by "a bunch of educated strangers who didn't bother to look in a dictionary."

Ukiah Unified School District Assistant Superintendent Bryan Barrett, one of the defendants, said he is fully aware of the word's actual meaning but said it could be interpreted as racist in part because the district's superintendent, Lois Nash, is black.

"To me, it's not what the word means. It's how people take it," said Barrett, who penned one of two letters accusing Boaz of racism.

"Racism or suggested racism has absolutely no place in this district in relationships between the district and the union and in negotiations," Barrett wrote. He also questioned Boaz's integrity and credibility.

Boaz said Nash never sat at the negotiating table, and it never occurred to him she would take offense.

After the brouhaha broke out, he sent her a letter apologizing for not "being sensitive to the possible effects of the word."

Nash never responded to his letter, Boaz said. She could not be reached for comment.

But both Nash and the school district's attorney approved Barrett's letter to Boaz, Barrett said.

The other letter was penned by Mendocino County schools superintendent Paul Tichinin and signed by superintendents of the Willits, Potter Valley, Round Valley, Anderson Valley, Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Laytonville, Manchester and Point Arena school districts.

"As educators and human beings, this type of racism does not belong in our community, schools or at this negotiations table," the letter states.

The case against Barrett and the Ukiah Unified School District was argued in court Friday. The case against the other superintendents is scheduled to be heard Sept. 3.

During Friday's hearing, Barrett argued that calling Boaz racist was opinion, which is protected by free speech laws.

Judge Leonard La Casse said the courts are loathe to hamper free speech, but he needs to further study the issue before making a ruling.

Decades ago, being called a racist might have been considered an opinion that was not particularly harmful to one's reputation.

"Today it can be devastating to a person's career," La Casse said.

Use of the word "niggardly" has long been the source of controversy.

In 1999, a white aide to the black mayor of Washington, D.C., resigned after a black colleague complained that he used the term when discussing how he would handle the budget. The aide was later rehired.

Debate also was triggered when a North Carolina teacher was reprimanded in 2002 and sent for sensitivity training after teaching the word to her class during a vocabulary lesson.

The Dallas Morning News banned the word after complaints were lodged over its appearance in a restaurant review, Salon.com reported.

But Britain's Economist magazine reportedly was simply amused in 1995 to receive a letter of complaint from a Boston reader offended by seeing the word in a technology story.

"Why do we get such letters only from America?" it responded.

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