MINNESOTA — A federal judge has ruled that a student who was suspended from his high school for a two-word tweet can proceed with his lawsuit against the school district and the town police.
Reid Sagehorn was suspended from Rogers High School in February 2014 and threatened with expulsion after he sarcastically tweeted “Actually, yeah” in response to an anonymous post on a website called “Roger confessions” that said Sagehorn had “made out” with a female teacher.
In a 45-page ruling issued Aug. 11, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim wrote that Sagehorn had a plausible argument that the Minnesota school district violated his First and 14th Amendment rights and that he might have been defamed in public remarks by the town police chief, who was quoted in news stories as saying that Sagehorn could face felony charges.
“The order said what we thought it was going to say,” said Paul Dworak, who is one of Sagehorn’s attorneys. It showed that school officials cannot censor student speech anytime, anywhere, he said — particularly when the student is, like Sagehorn was, “home on a Sunday.”
Tunheim did dismiss Sagehorn’s claims that the police department violated his First and 14th Amendment rights, and dismissed Stephen Sarazin, the public liaison police officer at the school, from the case. Police Chief Jeffrey Beahen, Superintendent Mark Bezek and Principal Roman Pierskalla are still defendants in the case.
Representatives for Independent School District Number 728 and the Rogers police department did not respond to requests for comment as of publication time.
Sagehorn was suspended for “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member.” Sagehorn was then told that he would be expelled if he did not withdraw from the district, according to the ruling. He ultimately withdrew and has since graduated from another high school. After an investigation, administrators found no evidence of an inappropriate relationship between Sagehorn and the teacher.
In June 2014, Sagehorn filed a lawsuit, arguing that the tweet was protected speech, since it was posted outside of school hours, off school grounds, not at a school-sponsored event and without using school property.
In his ruling, Tunheim wrote that the school district has not shown that the tweet “caused a substantial disruption, was obscene, was lewd or vulgar, or was harassing.”
Tunheim wrote that “the general rule is that off-campus statements are ‘protected under the First Amendment and not punishable by school authorities unless they are true threats or are reasonably calculated to reach the school environment and are so egregious as to pose a serious safety risk or other substantial disruption in that environment.’” [Emphasis his.]
Dworak said there is now an “extremely high bar” for the school district to prove that the tweet caused a substantial disruption in school.
Tunheim’s ruling suggests off-campus speech is protected unless there is an intent to cause a disruption, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. Sagehorn has claimed in his lawsuit that he did not intend for anyone to believe the rumor, and that no one had mentioned his tweet at school until the principal brought it up a week after he posted it.
“It clearly didn’t cause a disruption other than the school’s overreaction,” LoMonte said. “The sum total of the disruption seems to be that the school took this way too seriously.”
The school district has maintained that they were entitled to regulate Sagehorn’s speech because “it was lewd and constituted harassment to the teacher identified in the post.” The 1986 U.S. Supreme Court case Bethel School District vs. Fraser allows schools to discipline on-campus speech that is vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive.
Tunheim wrote that Fraser does offer school officials significant discretion to define “vulgar” speech that is delivered on school grounds, but he said the case is “clearly limited to on-campus speech.”
This is one of the most important parts of the ruling, LoMonte said. Schools often try to use Fraser to regulate vulgar off-campus speech, but this is a “categorical rejection” of that argument, he said.
The school district has claimed that “several dictionaries” define “make out” as engaging in sexual intercourse. Tunheim wrote that the question before the court is instead about how an average person “would understand the term in the context in which it appeared.” The term “make out” is slang, he wrote, and its meaning is ambiguous.
Now, the case could continue to trial. Sagehorn is seeking monetary awards, an expungement of the incident from his transcript and student files and for policy and procedure changes at Rogers High School and the school district.
The defendants could also choose to settle, if they take the ruling as a sign that they might lose the case.
“It makes no sense for the schools to dig in and fight this for multiple years when the handwriting seems to be on the wall,” LoMonte said.
SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.