By Trent Hale*
Once again, a post on a social media site has landed a teenager in some hot waters. This time, a two-word tweet posted by Reid Sagehorn, a Minnesota student, resulted in administrators at Rogers High School suspending Sagehorn for seven weeks. Now, Sagehorn has filed a lawsuit against the Elk River Independent School District in which he argues that his suspension was a violation of his freedom of speech.
What two words warrant such a punishment? According to the lawsuit, an individual anonymously tweeted “did @R_Sagehorn3 actually make out with [name of a female teacher at Rogers High School]” on the page “Roger Confessions”. Sagehorn then responded to the tweet by saying “Actually yeah.” According to Sagehorn, this response was meant in jest and was made sarcastically, but school administrators felt otherwise and suspended Sagehorn on charges of “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member.”
The lawsuit against the Elk River Independent School District raises, yet again, the question of to what extent is one’s freedom of speech protected under the law. In the 1969 landmark Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court found that public school administrators do not have the right to limit a student’s freedom of speech unless for a constitutionally valid and justifiable cause. Sagehorn, however, similar to the plaintiffs in Tinker v. Des Moines, argues that his tweet (made outside of school hours, outside school grounds, without the use of school property, and without the intent to reaching the broader school community) did not cause any disruption to his students or to the education process nor did it present any threat to one’s physical safety. With this, Sagehorn submits that the punishment he received for his tweet was not only excessive but was an encroachment upon his constitutional rights.
While the Supreme Court, in cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines has set a precedent for the protection of a student’s freedom of speech in public schools, the current generation’s wide use of social media such as twitter presents new questions of a public school student’s freedom of expression. Sagehorn likely never expected his two-word tweet to land him in the middle of a dispute over constitutionality, but now, with Sagehorn’s lawsuit, the court system must determine if a tweet about a faculty member constitutes a justifiable cause to limit an individual’s constitutional freedom of speech.
Despite what may come from the conclusion of Sagehorn’s lawsuit, his story does remind us of the sometimes unintended consequences of a seemingly innocuous tweet, Facebook post, or even picture on Instagram. Additionally, cases such as Sagehorn’s continues a notable history of our nation’s courts dealing with the question of a student’s freedom of speech. Along with Tinker v. Des Moines, the following Supreme Court Cases made significant rulings on freedom of speech within a public school and are worth looking up and reading more about their findings:
- Engel v. Vitale (1962)
- Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988)
- Bethel School District #43 v. Fraser (1987),
- Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000).
The findings of the court system in the matter of Sagehorn v. Independent School District No.728 will continue in this line of the courts discerning how far a student’s freedom of expression extends within the realm of his or her public school community.