December 10, 2015
Last year, a seemingly innocuous two-word tweet, “actually yes,” made national headlines when it was tweeted by a high school student in response to an online post inquiring whether the then 17-year-old “made out” with a teacher.
The student, Reid Sagehorn, insisted that the tweet was sarcastic and meant to be taken in jest, but the school district as well as the city’s police department weren’t in a laughing mood: Sagehorn was suspended for five days, which was later extended into ten days, and threatened with expulsion such that he was forced to transfer schools months before graduation. The police chief of the city of Rogers, a suburb of Minneapolis, meanwhile had been quoted in media outlets as stating that Sagehorn “could face felony charges” for committing a “crime.”
After the dust largely settled, Sagehorn filed suit against the school district and several of its employees (including the high school principal and the district superintentdent) along with the Rogers Police Department Police Chief (and another police officer) for, among other things, First Amendment free speech violations and defamation.
The case just settled this week, no doubt because of the district court’s order on the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings, which denied the most important portions of the motion, thereby allowing the lawsuit to proceed and giving a glimpse of the court’s views on the legal points of contention.
Briefly, here’s what the 45-page order said:
First, on the First Amendment claims, the court rejected the school district’s argument that the tweet was obscene (specifically that it was obscene “because several dictionaries define ‘make out’ as ‘to engage in sexual intercourse’). The court stated that the most commonly understood definition didn’t involve intercourse, and that the tweet in question, “actually yes,” is “not nearly as graphic as the content courts have found obscene as a matter of law.”
The court also rejected the district’s argument that the tweet created a “substantial disruption” for the school, since the tweet was made off-campus and outside of school hours, and because there is simply no indication that the tweet did, in fact, create any kind of disruption whatsoever.
Finally, the court was not persuaded by the police chief’s arguments that the defamation claim itself was deficient, such as that it lacked specificity or that he failed to identify Sagehorn by name.
So what did the parties end up settling for? According to Sagehorn’s attorney, the school district is to pay $325,000 and the city will pay $100,000 – for a hefty total of $425,000.
Neither defendant, for their part, admits to any wrongdoing, with the school district adding that it “continues to believe that it acted appropriately and in the best interests of all students and staff.”
Of course, there’s little doubt that the school district would be making a costly mistake to do the same thing again in the future – as would any school district.
So what should a school district do in a situation like this?
First, schools must recognize that students do have rights under the First Amendment, and that even in the face of increasingly widespread student speech thanks to social media, these rights must be respected.
By all means, an investigation may be warranted if school officials reasonably believe that student or faculty safety may be endangered, but it seems that the suspension of Sagehorn in this case was punishment for merely the tweet itself, not for any other actions that may have been implied therein.
In short, schools must tread carefully when it comes to student speech – unless they want to write hefty settlement checks.