Student suspended for two-word sarcastic tweet to receive $425,000 in settlement

MINNESOTA — The former high school student who was suspended for a two-word tweet will receive $425,000 in a federal court settlement. 

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 “Roger confessions” post that said Sagehorn had “made out” with a female teacher. Sagehorn, who is now 19, has maintained that the tweet was a joke, and administrators could not find evidence of an inappropriate relationship between Sagehorn and the teacher after an investigation.

In June 2014, Sagehorn filed a lawsuit against the Elk River School District, Superintendent Mark Bezek, Principal Roman Pierskalla, Rogers Police Chief Jeffrey Beahen and others, 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.

Sagehorn contended that the Minnesota school district violated his First and 14th Amendment rights and that he was defamed in public remarks by Beahen, who was quoted in news stories as saying that Sagehorn “could face felony charges” for committing a “crime.” (Sagehorn was never charged with a crime.)

Paul Dworak, one of Sagehorn’s attorneys, said the school district will pay Sagehorn $325,000 and the city of Rogers will pay him $100,000. Sagehorn had initially sought 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, but those were not included in the terms of the settlement, Dworak said.

Still, he said, Sagehorn was happy with the outcome of the case and was “looking forward to putting it behind him and being a normal college student.”

Representatives from the school district did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment on Wednesday, but the district’s attorney told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the district didn’t admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement and the decision was based on “practical financial realities.”

In August, a federal judge ruled that Sagehorn had a plausible argument and could proceed with his lawsuit against the school district and the town police. U.S. District Judge John Tonheim wrote that the school district had not shown that Sagehorn’s 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.]

The courts have been divided over the issue of students’ off-campus speech, particularly on social media. The U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether to weigh in — attorneys for a separate case of a former high school student who was suspended for posting a rap song online have filed a petition to the highest court asking the justices to review whether it is appropriate to apply existing standards to off-campus online speech.

Dworak said his argument all along has been that “the internet posed new challenges, but it didn’t change the law.” Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District established in 1969 that school officials may not punish or prohibit student speech unless they can clearly demonstrate that it will substantially disrupt school activities or invade the rights of others. In Sagehorn’s case, the school district cited the 1986 Supreme Court case Bethel School District v. Fraser, which allows schools to discipline on-campus speech that is vulgar, lewd or plainly offensive — but Tunheim wrote in his ruling that the case is “clearly limited to on-campus speech.”

“School administrators are not censors of student speech at all times and all places, particularly on Sundays at home, like in this case,” Dworak said.

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

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