High Schooler Tweet, Suspension Raises First Amendment Issues

The case of a Minnesota high school student who is suing his former school as the result of a suspension has come back into the light at the online site of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal. While the Twitter incident which led to the student suspension occurred at the beginning of 2014, the circumstances surrounding the incident raise important questions about not only the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but also about how to approach behavior from a legal standpoint in what is still the relatively new world of social media. 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.

Photo: Steindy/Wikimedia Commons

The case of a Minnesota high school student who is suing his former school as the result of a suspension has come back into the light at the online site of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal. While the Twitter incident which led to the student suspension occurred at the beginning of 2014, the circumstances surrounding the incident raise important questions about not only the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution but also about how to approach behavior from a legal standpoint in what is still the relatively new world of social media.

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.

Questionable DNA Evidence Gathering Upheld by Supreme Court

Questionable DNA evidence gathering upheld

Photo: Public Domain Pictures

Most people know that if a crime has been committed and fingerprints are left behind, detectives can inspect those fingerprints to determine if you are a match and therefore committed the crime. Other evidence commonly gathered may be blood, saliva, or semen. However, a recent case in Maryland brought the issue of DNA evidence gathering under the spotlight. In the case, after a suspect voluntarily came into a police station for questioning on a rape case, the police swabbed the armrests of the chair he was sitting in for skin cells to test DNA, leading to his conviction. The man took his case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which upheld the conviction. He appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), but they denied the request for review.

The Case was Closed, but was it Lawful?

According to an article in ARS Technica, in 2006 a Maryland woman was raped in home. Police interviewed approximately 20 suspects over the course of two years in an attempt to locate the perpetrator. Each of the suspects voluntarily provided DNA samples to the police, but none of them matched the genetic material from the crime scene.

However, Glenn Raynor, a former classmate of the victim and man who matched the physical description of the suspect, refused to provide a sample of his DNA. However, he did voluntarily come into the police station, spoke with police, and stated that he was not the rapist.

After Raynor left, police swabbed the armrests of the chair where he had been sitting. They were able to gather skin cell DNA evidence which they used to link Raynor to the crime scene. In his trial, Raynor moved to suppress the DNA evidence, claiming it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant. In order to obtain a warrant, there must be probable cause, and Raynor claimed they didn’t have the probable cause necessary.

The DNA evidence was allowed in the case, and Raynor was sentenced to life in prison. He took the case to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which upheld the conviction on a 4-3 vote, and on Monday, March 2, without any comment, SCOTUS refused to review the case.

Concerns Regarding Questionable DNA Evidence Gathering

In addition to Raynor taking his case to the Supreme Court, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also filed an amicus [friend of the court] brief, urging the Supreme Court to accept the case.

According to an article on the EFF website, they are claiming that DNA evidence used in cases like Raynor v. Maryland are violating people’s Fourth Amendment right to privacy regarding their personal genetic material.

“As human beings, we shed hundreds of thousands of skin and hair cells daily, with each cell containing information about who we are, where we come from, and who we will be,” EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch said. “The court must recognize that allowing police the limitless ability to collect and search genetic material will usher in a future where DNA may be collected from any person at any time, entered into and checked against DNA databases, and used to conduct pervasive surveillance.”

They went on to say that just because the cost of DNA evidence analysis technology is dropping doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be used more. They pointed to the fact that in some cases, DNA “can allow police to identify a person’s relatives, turning family members into inadvertent ‘genetic informants’ on each other.”

In 2013, in a similar case from Maryland, the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that police may take a DNA sample from someone who has been arrested without the need for warrant. However, Raynor’s attorney, Byron Warnken, said the same shouldn’t apply to his client because Raynor was not under arrest at the time.

In the Maryland Court of Appeals, the dissenting judges said the case of Raynor v. Maryland set a dangerous precedent.

“The Majority’s approval of such police procedure means, in essence, that a person desiring to keep her DNA profile private, must conduct her public affairs in a hermetically sealed hazmat suit. Moreover, the Majority opinion will likely have the consequence that many people will be reluctant to go to the police station to voluntarily provide information about crimes for fear that they, too, will be added to the CODIS database…. The Majority’s holding means that a person can no longer vote, participate in a jury, or obtain a driver’s license, without opening up his genetic material for state collection and codification. Unlike DNA left in the park or a restaurant, these are all instances where the person has identified himself to the government authority.”

However, the majority for the alluded to the concept that leaving behind DNA is like leaving behind a fingerprint and is therefore fair game.

“In the end, we hold that DNA testing of the 13 identifying junk loci within genetic material, not obtained by means of a physical intrusion into the person’s body, is no more a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, than is the testing of fingerprints, or the observation of any other identifying feature revealed to the public—visage, apparent age, body type, skin color.”

Iron County Prosecutors Drop Ag-gag Charges, Law Examined

Utah ag-gag charges dropped

Photo: Matthias M/Wikimedia Commons

Four animal activists who were allegedly on private property at a hog farm in Iron County in September have been released from charges of Utah’s agricultural interference law, also known as an ag-gag law. The activists will still face criminal trespass charges, and many are wondering when it comes to ag-gag laws, why trespassing charges aren’t sufficient and exactly who these other laws are protecting. In the case of many animal rights activists, they believe it’s not necessarily who is being protected but a certain type of misbehavior that is being protected.

Ag-gag in Iron County

The four activists from California and Maryland were members of a group known as the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), and the hog farm was Circle Four Farms, a part of Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of the world’s largest pork producer. According to a report from the Salt Lake Tribune, the attorney for the activists, T. Matthew Phillips, stated that the four wanted to document the pigs’ journey from the farm to a California slaughterhouse.

According to the FARM website, they are a nonprofit group that is “working to end the use of animals as food through public education and grassroots activism.” While they claim that most of their programs are aimed at engaging “likely target audiences … and [nudging] them along the vegan path,” they also state that “[o]ccasionally, we seek to capture media attention through dramatic displays.”

Attorney Phillips says the Circle Four Farms incident was not one of these examples of “dramatic display.” In fact, he states that the four were actually on a public roadway and were only capturing images of farm buildings, not of the workers or animals.

However, the wording of Utah’s ag-gag law 76-6-112 states that a person is guilty of agricultural interference if they knowingly or intentionally record “an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation” without the consent of the owner. The law specifies several acts that are prohibited, including leaving a recording a device on the premises, obtaining a job under false pretenses to record activity, recording activity as a regular employee of the facility, or trespassing on private property to get such images or sounds.

Given the fact that Iron County prosecutors are still charging the four activists with criminal trespass, they must differ with Phillips, however, Circle Four Farms stated that they didn’t wish to pursue the agricultural interference charges.

Ag-gag Under the Microscope and Put on Trial

Utah Rep. John G. Mathis (R-Vernal) sponsored HB 187 in 2012. The bill went through two revisions before being ultimately approved. According to an article in Deseret News, Mathis claimed the reason for sponsoring this bill was that he wanted to put an end to “animal-rights terrorists” out to destroy the agricultural industry. He was quoted as saying that animal protection groups such as FARM and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were using these investigations as propaganda to promote their own organizations, especially in fundraising efforts.

Opposition to the ag-gag laws—which are currently on the books in five other states—say these laws are violations of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They state that the First Amendment protecting free speech and press has specifically led to reform in the food industry in the past, citing such books as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” which was pivotal in leading the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

If convicted of criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor per Utah Criminal Code 76-6-206, the four activists could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Of the six states with ag-gag laws, only one other person has been charged with violation of the law. In February of 2013, Amy Meyer was charged for videotaping the operations at Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper. However, charges against her were also dropped, with the reasoning cited as either public outcry or the fact that Meyer’s video footage showed that she was on public property at the time of her filming.

On a larger scale, in July of 2013, two national nonprofit organizations, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and PETA, filed a lawsuit against the State of Utah challenging the ag-gag law for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Attorneys for the state attempted to argue that the case should be thrown out, however, according to an August 2014 article in the Salt Lake Tribune, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby has refused.

Even though he didn’t dismiss the case, Shelby has said that at this point, the plaintiffs have failed to show how the statute has resulted in past injury as no one is currently being prosecuted under the statute or how it will cause future injury, but the case will still have its proverbial day in court which means it will have to stand up to further public scrutiny.