Two Little Words Lead to Big Litigation

How much trouble can two words cause exactly?  It probably depends on the words.  But the words “actually yes” have led to federal litigation in Minnesota and a court decision that may impact school discipline across the country.  All of which begs for some background.  

In 2014, Reid Sagehorn was a senior at Rogers High School in Minnesota.   He was an honor student, a member of the National Honor Society and a captain of the basketball, football and baseball teams.  Pretty much exactly like my high school experience except for, you know, the academic awards and the athletic achievement.  Sagehorn had a clean disciplinary record and had previously obtained early admission to North Dakota State University.   

On January 26, 2014, an anonymous poster wrote the following on a Web site entitled “Roger confessions”:  did @R_Sagehorn3 actually make out with [name of female teacher* at Rogers High School]?”
*editor’s note – the court apparently deleted the name of the teacher.  As a joke, Sagehorn responded “actually yes.”  And that is when the trouble began.  Apparently, student teacher make out sessions are no laughing matter in Minnesota.   

Despite the fact that Sagehorn delivered his response after school hours, off school property and at a time when he was not engaged in any school sponsored activity,  when a parent complained about the posts, the Rogers disciplinary process shifted into overdrive.   Principal Roman Pierskalla summoned Sagehorn to his office.  Also present for the meeting, in full uniform, was Officer Stephen Sarazin, a police officer with the local police department.    Initially, Pierskalla suspended Sagehorn for five days, claiming that Sagehorn’s post violated school policy prohibiting “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator, or staff member.”  Eventually, Pierskalla decided that an expulsion was in order.  That put the Sagehorns in a bind, since an expulsion would likely have resulted in North Dakota State revoking its early acceptance.  Faced with the rock and hard place dilemma, the Sagehorn voluntarily withdrew from Rogers.   

But the school was not the only party overreacting.  Rogers Police Chief Jeffery Beahen, who was not present at any meetings with Sagehorn, talked to local media and informed them that Sagehorn had committed a crime and “could face felony charges.”  Despite the fact that Sagehorn was a juvenile, Beahen freely gave his name to the local media.  The County Attorney’s office, apparently the only adult in the vicinity, wisely determined there as insufficient evidence to charge Sagehorn with a crime.  Much to Beahen’s surprise there is no felony bragging on the Minnesota books.   

Subscribing to the “don’t get mad, get even” philosophy, Sagehorn and his parents filed a federal suit against the school and Chief Beahen for violating his constitutional rights and defamation.  The school and Beahen each moved for “judgment on the pleadings.”  The school claimed that it did not violate  Sagehorn’s constitutional rights, as it was permitted to discipline him for his speech, notwithstanding the First Amendment.  The court disagreed. While a public school may discipline a student based on the content of the student’s speech, it may do so only to prevent a “substantial disruption” or if the speech is obscene, lewd vulgar or harassing.  Sagehorn’s two word response was none of the above.   

Police Chief Beahen  argued that Sagehorn failed to identify specific defamatory comments.  The court disagreed, noting Sagehorn’s complaint set out several specific, actionable statements.  And the court flatly rejected Beahen’s contention that he never mentioned Sagehorn by name.  The court noted that this defense fails when the subject of the comments is clearly identifiable.  Given the context of Beahen’s comments, there was no doubt as to whom he was referring.  

The case is a warning to public school districts.  Kids do indeed say the darndest things.  And these days, they say them on social media platforms.  It is probably a good idea not to overreact when it happens.