Opinion: Two-word tweet leads to lawsuit over people’s rights and reputations

Rogers High School student Reid Sagehorn’s hasty two-word tweet online in January and its consequences have drawn national and even international attention from major news media.

In response to a question about making out with a Rogers High School physical education teacher, Sagehorn responded, “actually yes.”

A parent notified Rogers school authorities of Sagehorn’s tweet, resulting in a furor that hasn’t died down.

Sagehorn was suspended for seven weeks, lost his membership in the Honor Society and was stripped of his captaincy of a sports team.

Parents and students protested, Sagehorn left Rogers High School and graduated at nearby St. Michael-Albertville High School. He was never charged by the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, which reviewed the case, and he later apologized for the tweet, which he said was meant to be a joke.

Sagehorn is suing the Elk River Area School District, school officials and the Rogers police chief, who suggested the tweet might be a felony, for permanently damaging his reputation and violating his civil rights.

Some hope this case will go to a court trial to help settle the key question: What right does a school district have to discipline a student for a tweet made outside of school hours, outside the school building and on his own equipment? The answer to that question will alert superintendents all over the country who need to develop specific guidelines to deal with this technological development.

Dave Adney, director of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, assures the public that principals are too busy to monitor student traffic on Facebook and Twitter.

More often, he said, principals are contacted by someone outside the district and feel the need to investigate the complaint, as was the case with Rogers High School.

One key criteria, no matter if the complaint comes from either inside or outside the school district, is disruption of the learning environment.

The newly enacted anti-bullying law also covers the school’s right to check out student messages on cyberspace.

Most school districts have a student conduct policy that covers inappropriate threats and bullying of other students and staff. The Bloomington School District’s policy specifies that a student can be investigated and disciplined even if the unacceptable use originates from a non-school computer or resource.

Then Sagehorn’s First Amendment rights to send a message on the Internet also are a consideration.

Does the fact that the tweet involved a teacher enable the school principal to discipline a student, even though the tweet was made outside the school and school day?

The teacher deserves every consideration and protection because reference to her was on a different digital media than a two-way gossipy conversation in the school hallway.

The bottom line is that Sagehorn’s tweet, although intended to be humorous, was subject to investigation because it involved a teacher, but that the seven-week suspension, in my opinion, was too severe. The major question remains for the court to answer: Did the Rogers administration have the authority to act on a tweet outside the school system?

The school district may have to pay a price for its reaction to the tweet, while Sagehorn tries to put the pieces of his life back together. It is a lesson to all students throughout the country that tweeting can be hazardous. — Don Heinzman, ECM Publishers columnist