A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a Rogers High School student has a plausible argument that he was unjustly suspended last year for writing a two-word tweet, in which he claimed he made out with a high school teacher.
U.S. District Judge John Tunheim indicated in a 45-page memorandum that the Elk River School District may have violated Reid Sagehorn’s First and 14th Amendment rights and that Sagehorn may have been defamed in subsequent published remarks by the Rogers police chief, Jeffrey Beahan. The chief was quoted in news accounts saying Sagehorn “could face felony charges” for committing a “crime.”
The Hennepin County attorney’s office declined to charge Sagehorn.
Sagehorn, who was an honor student and captain of the Rogers football and basketball teams, sued Superintendent Mark Bezek, Assistant Superintendent Jana Hennen-Burr and Beahen. Tunheim rejected their motion to throw out the case. Tunheim decided, however, that there was insufficient evidence to continue Stephen Sarazin, a Rogers police officer, as a defendant.
In January 2014, Sagehorn was asked on a website titled “Roger confessions” whether he had “made out” with a 28-year-old teacher at the school. Sagehorn, then 17, tweeted, “Actually, yeah,” but later maintained he said it in jest.
The district suspended Sagehorn for five days, then extended it to 10 days, and then to nearly two months. Sagehorn says he was forced to withdraw and attend another school to avoid expulsion.
District officials argued that Sagehorn’s tweet was obscene and that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. Tunheim said that while the slang phrase “make out” has various meanings, it was not obscene because it was neither “graphic” nor “hard core,” nor did it imply sexual intercourse. Tunheim also said the tweet was not “lewd and vulgar,” nor did it rise to the level of harassment, as the district alleged.
Tunheim’s decision means the suit can proceed with witness depositions and additional motions by both sides. It could pave the way for a trial, but it could also send a message to the defendants that they might lose the case, setting the stage for a settlement.