Student Sues School and Police over Tweet Suspension

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 18, 2014

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An honor student suspended for seven weeks after sending a controversial tweet has filed a lawsuit against police and school officials for invading his privacy, defaming his reputation, and falsely accusing him of criminal activity.  The rapidly escalating punishment of Minnesota 17-year-old, Reid Sagehorn, for his inappropriate comment on Twitter gained national attention earlier this year, and resulted yesterday in a free speech lawsuit filed in federal court.

Teenager’s Misguided Tweet Leads to Lengthy Suspension

In January, 2014 Reid Sagehorn responded to a website question asking him if he had made out with a 28-year-old female teacher with a simple tweet: “Actually, yeah.”  Shortly after his post, Reid was issued a 5-day suspension from school with the promise that continued investigation and possible punishment was forthcoming.  Although Reid admitted the tweet was meant to be taken in jest, publically admitted he made a mistake, and apologized to the female teacher who was the subject of the question, police and school officials continued to pursue the matter, resulting in the following consequences:

  • Reid’s punishment was extended to a 10 day suspension, and it was recommended that he be expelled for seven weeks.
  • Upon requesting a hearing to discuss his punishment, Reid was informed by police that he had committed a crime, would face felony charges, and that his file was sent to the district attorney’s office for review.
  • Although the district attorney found no evidence of a crime, school and police officials continued to discourage Reid from pursuing a hearing regarding his proposed expulsion by indicating the school board would not only agree with the decision, but extend the expulsion through the remainder of the school year – jeopardizing his ability to graduate and attend college the following year.
  • Reid subsequently withdrew his request for a hearing and accepted terms issued by school officials that required him to withdraw from school in order to preserve his academic record.
  • Reid enrolled at another school to complete his senior year.

Throughout the process, the Sagehorn family expressed anger and surprise that Reid, a multi-sport athlete and honor student with a 3.8 GPA, was pursued so aggressively by police and school officials for his mistake.  After the dust settled, the Sagehorns contacted legal counsel and finalized a federal lawsuit alleging violations of Free Speech and Due Process rights.

Lawsuit Accuses Police and School Officials of Free Speech Violation

The central justification for Reid’s punishment was that he violated two School Board Regulations: 1) threatening, intimidating, or assaulting a teacher; and 2) engaging in willful conduct that “significantly disrupts the rights of others to an education, or the ability of school personnel to perform their duties.  Reid’s attorneys argue that the these two school board provisions, which are not laws, do not give school or police officials authority to regulate tweets sent while Reid was not on school grounds or engaging in school activities.

Reid lawsuit against his local police department and high school officials details the punitive action taken against him following his misguided tweet, and argues that the school board and police department exceed their legal authority.  The complaint, found here, alleges the following violations of Reid’s rights:

  • Punishment for Reid’s out-of-school and sarcastic remark constitutes a violation of the right to Free Speech.  Reid’s tweet was not a true threat, and was not so serious that it posed a true risk of disrupting the school environment.
  • Reid was denied his Fourteenth Amendment right to Due Process when the school board and police threatened him with further punishment should he and his family pursue their request for a hearing in front of the School Board to discuss his punishment.
  • Reid suffered defamation when the police statement incorrectly claimed that he would be charged with a felony, and forwarded his case to the district attorney.  The Chief of Police made false statements about Reid breaking the law to media outlets, causing the young man’s reputation to suffer.

Reid claims that the actions of his police and school officials caused him mental anguish, and is seeking financial damages and an expungement from his record of any punishment associated with this incident.

Case Highlights New-Age Free Speech Concerns

The Supreme Court has established that public schools are permitted to limit speech that is disruptive to school functions, but how far that authority extends in terms of social media is still unsettled.  Whether or not Reid’s lawsuit will provide insight into how schools can regulate social media speech remains to be seen, but it is clear that the issue giving rise to this case is not going away, and school administrators across the country will continue to probe the legal limits on authority to punish students for out-of-school internet communications until the legal system provides guidance.

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