Two words, delivered in jest, are now the focus of a civil rights lawsuit filed by a suspended student against his former school and, incredibly, the local police chief. There were a million ways this debacle could have been avoided, but the school district has decided doubling-down on its stupidity was the only way out of the mess it chose to create. After all, it won't lose much more than a bit of its reputation. If the plaintiff wins, it's taxpayers who will be footing the bill for the school's self-destructive, massively stupid overreaction.
Here's where it all began:
In February 2014, [Reid] Sagehorn was an honor student at Rogers High School, a member of the National Honor Society, and a four-time recipient of the Scholastic Achievement Award. He was a varsity letterman in football, basketball, and baseball, as well as the named captain of the basketball team in 2012 and both the football and basketball teams in 2013. Prior to February 2014, Sagehorn had never been subject to any disciplinary actions by Rogers High School, aside from a single parking ticket. On October 11, 2013, he was admitted to North Dakota State University (“NDSU”), pending completion of all work for any remaining courses taken prior to his enrollment.
Stellar student, but he went two words too far.
On January 26, 2014, someone anonymously posted on a website titled “Roger confessions” the following: “did @R_Sagehorn3 actually make out with [name of female teacher at Rogers High School]?” Sagehorn did not create or maintain the “Roger confessions” website. In response, Sagehorn posted “actually yes,” which he intended to be taken in jest. The post was made the same day, outside of school hours and not on school grounds. Sagehorn was not at a school-sponsored event at the time he made his post, nor did he use any school property to make the post.
A non-event. Teens will be teens. Not school-related in any way but the use of a teacher's name. No one's business but the jokesters amusing themselves with a little off-color banter. But, if any rational behavior had followed this non-incident, we wouldn't be quoting parts of a legal filing.
Roughly a week later, some "helpful" parent started the stupid ball rolling by contacting the school. It wasn't until February 3 that Sagehorn was summoned to the principal's office. It quickly became clear anything resembling a proportionate response wasn't in the works.
The principal (Roman Pierskalla) called Sagehorn to the office and brought with him a fully-uniformed school police officer (Stephen Sarazin). Pierskalla told Sagehorn he was suspending him for five days for "damaging a teacher's reputation." To support his decision, he pulled a page out of the school policy manual that referred to "threatening, intimidating or assaulting a teacher, administrator or staff member." Clearly, Sagehorn's two-word tweet had performed none of these infractions.
A week later, Pierskalla talked to Sagehorn and his parents and told them he was extending the suspension another five
days, giving them no reason for doing so. He further defended his unilateral extension by "getting angry" at Sagehorn's parents for "questioning his authority."
Sagehorn's parents went over Pierskalla's head and requested an open-ended hearing with the school board to determine whether the principal's actions were justified. They received two responses, both equally asinine, but one carrying potential consequences far more damaging than a blighted academic record.
About an hour later, [Officer] Sarazin called Lori Sagehorn and left her a voicemail telling her that he had forwarded police reports from the postings to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office for their review and decision as to whether to charge Sagehorn with any crimes.
[Superintendent Mark] Bezek and [Asst. Superintendent Jana] Hennen-Burr represented to the Sagehorns that they could have a hearing in front of a hearing officer to contest the expulsion. Sagehorn alleges that Bezek and Hennen-Burr also informed the Sagehorns, however, that a hearing would be meaningless and the outcome was pre-ordained. In addition, Bezek and Hennen-Burr warned the Sagehorns that the school would consider increasing the expulsion punishment through the remainder of the school year if they requested a hearing. Bezek and Hennen-Burr told the Sagehorns that an expulsion of any duration would likely cause NDSU to withdraw its early acceptance of Reid Sagehorn and therefore the only real option was to withdraw Sagehorn from school. They then presented the Sagehorns with a pre-drafted withdrawal agreement.
Everything about this chain of events indicates the district employs too many people who cannot abide with having their decisions challenged. There's nothing in this that doesn't stink of retaliation. In addition to the school's actions, Sagehorn also had to deal with public statements made by Rogers' Chief of Police Jeffrey Beahen, who publicly called Sagehorn a felon.
Here's one of Beahen's statement's
We sent the case down for review by the county attorney,” Beahen said. “The case would be potentially criminal defamation. The student said something about a teacher that could have cost her career.”
He said a teacher having a relationship with a student is a felony, so implying such was not taken lightly.
“The teacher is a victim, she’s being harassed,” he said.
Here's another, but with additional stupid
“That’s a crime. It just wasn’t a tweet that went from Jimmy to John. It got up on this anonymous website where people weren’t supposed to use names.” Beahen said, also adding:
“It’s like screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater or ‘I have a bomb’ on an airplane,” Beahen said, “If you say something on a very public forum, there are consequences. This young, innocent teacher is the victim here.”
All of the parties named in Sagehorn's suit have asked for a dismissal or, failing that, immunity. The only one walking away from the suit alleging First and Fourteenth Amendment violations is Officer Sarazin, who the judge has determined was little more than a passive bystander through most of this.
The school attempted to claim Sagehorn's two-word reply wasn't protected by the First Amendment because it was "obscene." It brought a variety of dictionaries with it to allege that "making out" actually could be taken to mean "had sexual intercourse with," thus making his two-word affirmation akin to say he had performed a sexual act with a teacher. The court doesn't find this argument persuasive and brings something actually
obscene to buttress its rebuttal.
Even if the Court were to find that Sagehorn’s post unambiguously referred to sexual intercourse, the content actually attributable to Sagehorn – a response of “actually yes” – is not nearly as graphic as the content courts have found obscene as a matter of law. [...]
The stark contrast between Sagehorn’s speech and speech that would now be considered obscene is particularly evident when this case is compared to other recent obscenity cases. Sagehorn’s post, for example, markedly differs from a student tweet deemed obscene in Rosario v. Clark County School District, 2013, cited by the School Defendants. In Rosario, the court concluded that a tweet, which was sent off-campus after a basketball game, was obscene when it expressed a hope that the basketball coach “gets fucked in tha ass by 10 black dicks.” [...]
“[G]ets fucked” is an unambiguous appeal to prurient interest. Unlike “make out,” there is no ambiguity as to whether the Rosario tweet referred to sexual intercourse.
The school also tried the "lewd and vulgar" argument -- in the context of a school environment -- as being sufficient to shield it against First Amendment claims. Again, the court uses the school's citations against it.
While Fraser offers school officials significant discretion to define “vulgar” speech delivered on school grounds, Fraser is clearly limited to on-campus speech. The Supreme Court stated that such discipline is restricted to “[t]he determination of what manner of speech in the classroom or in school assembly is appropriate.”
The school similarly had no luck with its plea for qualified immunity.
The law is sufficiently clear that on facts such as the complaint alleges in this case – a student using personal property to make non-threatening speech off-campus, that in no way impacts or disrupts the school environment – a student would have a clearly established right to free speech. The Court further concludes that a reasonable officer or school official would understand that punishing such speech would violate the student’s clearly-established right. Therefore, the Court finds that the School Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity on Sagehorn’s First Amendment claim. The Court will accordingly deny the School Defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings as to Sagehorn’s First Amendment claim.
While Police Chief Beahen won't be facing civil rights claims, he's won't be able to walk away from Sagehorn's defamation allegations.
The Court concludes that Sagehorn’s complaint adequately pleads a defamation claim against Beahen. Sagehorn’s complaint identifies specific quotations by Beahen – for example, that Sagehorn’s post was like “crying or yelling ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater or saying ‘I got a bomb!’ on a plane” – and at least one specific media outlet to which allegedly defamatory statements were made – the Star Tribune. Sagehorn’s complaint does not include lengthy quotations or full context for the statements, but they are much more specific than, for example, in Magee, where the plaintiff alleged that the defamatory statements were “those found in the Hearing Committee determination,” with no further specificity.
Further, although Beahen asserts that the complaint is too vague to enable him to identify the news reports Sagehorn quotes, during oral argument on Beahen’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, Beahen’s counsel offered to play for the Court the exact Fox 9 news video containing the alleged defamatory statements identified in the complaint. Therefore, the Court finds that the complaint gave Beahen sufficient information to identify the relevant statements and news reports.
Sagehorn's lawsuit is allowed to proceed and both the school and Police Chief Beahen will potentially be ordered to hand over damages for their participation in a debacle that combined a complete lack of better judgment with retaliatory behavior. And all over two small words that would have gone largely unnoticed if the school's principal hadn't been so intent on overstepping the boundaries of his authority.