A $425,000 federal court settlement has been reached in favor of a former Rogers High School student who was suspended in 2014 for writing a two-word tweet, in which he joked that he had made out with one of the school’s teachers.
Reid Sagehorn, 19, sued the Elk River School District, Superintendent Mark Bezek, Rogers Police Chief Jeffrey Beahen and others in June 2014, after the honors student and captain of the high school football and basketball teams was suspended earlier that year.
The settlement calls for the school district to pay Sagehorn $325,000 and the city of Rogers to pay him $100,000, according to Paul Dworak, one of his attorneys.
“Reid’s very happy with the outcome of this case and looking forward to being a normal college student and putting this behind him,” said Dworak, who was part of a legal team that included Robert Bennett, Ron Rosenbaum and Joe Friedberg. “Reid is a very impressive young man. He had a lot of resolve.”
Amy Mace, an attorney for the Elk River schools, countered that “the district did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement agreement.” The school board’s decision last week to accept the settlement, she said, “was based on practical financial realities rather than any perceived merit of the plaintiff’s claims.”
Mace said the district’s insurer will pay the settlement.
Rogers city officials issued a statement Tuesday explaining that they settled because taking the case to trial would have endangered residents’ public safety, as well as cost the city much more in legal fees.
“To defend against [Sagehorn’s] claim, the city would have been required to pull officers off the street and away from investigations,” the statement said.
In January 2014, Sagehorn was asked on a website titled “Rogers 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 him 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.
Sagehorn got his diploma at St. Michael-Albertville High School, and now is studying business at a college out of state.
In August 2015, Judge John Tunheim ruled in U.S. District Court in St. Paul that Sagehorn had a plausible argument that he was unjustly suspended, that the district may have violated his free speech and other rights, and that he may have been defamed in subsequent published remarks by Beahen.
The chief had been quoted in news accounts saying that Sagehorn “could face felony charges” for committing a “crime.”
The Hennepin County attorney’s office declined to charge Sagehorn.
On Tuesday, Dworak said that Tunheim’s ruling “pretty much provided a clear picture of where the case was going to go.”
District officials argued at the outset that Sagehorn’s tweet was obscene and therefore 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.
The judge also said that the tweet was not “lewd and vulgar,” and that it didn’t rise to the level of harassment as the district alleged.
Sagehorn’s suit contended that his name “is forever linked with the term ‘felony.’ ”
It also said that the Internet posting was made outside of school hours, off school grounds and without the use of school property.
“Reid’s posting was meant to be taken in jest,” the suit said. “This was a mistake. … He never intended for anyone to believe his post.”
Despite the settlement, the district said in a statement Tuesday that it “continues to believe that it acted appropriately and in the best interests of all students and staff.”
The district said that the U.S. Supreme Court “has stated that student speech can be limited when it infringes on the rights of others.
“A student can also be disciplined for their speech when a school district can reasonably forecast a substantial disruption on the basis of the student’s speech.” If the case had gone before a jury, the district said it “would have argued that the speech at issue infringed on the rights of a teacher to not be falsely accused of violating the law by making out with a student.”