In my opinion there is absolutely no reason, whether joking around or not, to use a homophobic epithet. Under social norms, homosexuals are entitled to the same respect as women, minorities and foreigners, and epithets against those social groups are discouraged. With that being said, the First Amendment carries a lot of weight with a large part of that being free speech. We cannot start imprisoning citizens for saying words that are distasteful.
I believe that a civil society should always discourage the use of hateful language. Freedom of speech is of course an important right, but so is the 'right' of living in an open, well-mannered society. Political correctness has gone too far, in that sometimes peopl are afraid to express their true thoughts due to the fact they may be jumped on, but there is always a way to get your point across without having to resort to name-calling and the use of hurtful/hateful epithets.
I believe that part of living in a polite, diverse society is discouraging the use of words that are offensive to a certain group. However, on the other hand, freedom of speech is also important and essential, so they should never be outright banned. People also need to realize that words are just words, after all.
I wil lbe surprised if anyone votes "no" on this question. Whatever happened to the Golden Rule? I think even heterosexual people can understand how much it hurts to be attacked with an epithet of any kind (racial, gender, intelligence ... so many to choose from). What could possibly be the downside to NOT using these epithets? Maybe some comedians might have to re-tool some of their raunchier jokes, but they should be able to be funny without having to resort to that.
It may not be the best behavior but it's actually a good measuring tool to gauge a persons psyche. I've spotted quite a few pedophiles using some oddball epithets, though not all of them were homophobic, all of the oddball remarks were a tool used the exact same way. A good example are Internet tough guys picking on people and calling them fags, who in fact turn out to be homosexual pedophiles. I'm in no way associated with this link or the video makers but this video sums it well. Http://www.Youtube.Com/watch?V=DnVb0Vd9Plg I can't speak on how a person should or shouldn't be but there sure as hell are some things that you just flat out don't do. If there's a method of speaking that could be used to spot someone who's actually dangerous I really wouldn't care what a person said and I wouldn't encourage anyone to stop saying it.