The Power of Just Two Words
In January of 2014, Rogers High School senior Reid Sagehorn was on the last leg of his high school career. As a National Honor Society member with a 3.8 G.P.A., captain of both the football and basketball teams at his high school, and a student who had already received his letter of acceptance to North Dakota State University, the future was looking bright for Sagehorn.
Then he made a mistake common to many high school students—and adults for that matter. He made a joke online which was both false and potentially damaging to another party, raising questions of the bounds of the First Amendment.
In an online confession group which Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the school didn’t even know existed, Sagehorn posted a two word response when someone asked if he had ever “made out” a 28-year-old female gym teacher. Sagehorn’s response was “actually, yeah.”
According to the Star Tribune, even though Sagehorn admitted this was just a joke, approximately a week after the incident, he was called into the principal’s office and suspended for five days. Principal Pierskalla told Sagehorn’s mother that Reid was suspended because he “damaged a teacher’s reputation.”
The five days turned to a ten day suspension, which turned into a nearly two-month suspension. This additional suspension was justified by saying that Sagehorn was guilty of “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator, or other staff member.” Additionally, the Rogers police chief, Jeff Beahen, said they were looking into potential felony charges of defamation; however, within a few days, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office said there would be no charges.
In June, after graduating from another high school, Sagehorn filed the suit against the Elk River School District and Police Chief Beahen, as well as Superintendent Bezek, Principal Pierskalla, Assistant Superintendent Jana Hennen-Burr, and police liason Stephen Sarazin. The 31-page suit claims that Sagehorn’s First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated and that his name “is forever linked with the term ‘felony.’”
Sagehorn’s suit seeks monetary damages, policy changes to protect other students, and expungement of Sagehorn’s suspension from his record.
Is a Tweet Cause for Suspension or a Case for the First Amendment?
Several questions arise, primarily brought up by Sagehorn’s attorneys when it comes to this case.
Even though Sagehorn publicly apologized and admonished himself for the actions—stating that “No matter how I meant it, [it] doesn’t matter … Sarcasm doesn’t belong on the Internet.”—intentions don’t always come into play when it comes to questions of guilt or innocence. However, attorneys for Sagehorn believe the school and law enforcement reactions when it came to the actions of a minor are very important.
Regarding their justification of Sagehorn’s actions being “threatening” and “disrupting,” Raleigh Levine, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law who specializes in the First Amendment, was quoted in a KARE 11 article as saying, “The facts are particularly bad for the school because there’s not threatening behavior here … [T]he only disruption from speech came because of the school’s extreme reaction to it.”
The lawsuit also takes issue with Police Chief Beahan’s claim that Sagehorn’s conduct was like “crying or yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater or saying, ‘I got a bomb,’ on a plane,” two instances where the protections of the First Amendment are questioned. However, the suit goes on to say that Sagehorn’s comments couldn’t be compared to those examples, and that in addition to a violation of the First Amendment, his privacy was invaded considering the actions occurred outside of school hours, off school property, and on his personal computer.
When Superintendent Bezek found out about the lawsuit, he was surprised. However, he went on record with the Star Tribune as saying that he believed it’s hard to keep up with the technological world.
“Kids are living in a world without consequences and boundaries,” Bezek said.
Bezek went on to say that he had just returned from a superintendent’s convention when he found about the lawsuit. The primary topic of the convention was “staying out of trouble with social media.” Bezek said he wasn’t sure if the rules in place today were appropriate for the “game” kids were playing with technology.
Professor Levine would agree with Bezek in this instance, saying that cases like Sagehorn’s were occurring across the country.
“I think schools not only in Minnesota but all over the country are looking at the cases again because there hasn’t been any kind [of] definitive guidance from the Supreme Court,” Levine said.
According to Sagehorn’s attorneys, as of December, the Elk River School District and Rogers Police Department had answered the complaint and filed motions to dismiss.