A two-word post on social media — and the authorities’ overreaction to it — ruined a Minnesota high school student’s senior year and forever tarnished his online reputation by linking him to a felony charge, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Reid Sagehorn, an honor student and captain of the football team at Rogers High School, was suspended and threatened with expulsion amid a furor after he jokingly said on a website that he had a romantic affair with a teacher at his school. He eventually transferred schools.
The trouble began in late January, when an anonymous poster on a website, “Rogers Confessions,” asked whether Sagehorn “made out” with a teacher.
"Reid sarcastically posted: 'Actually, yeah,'" according to the suit.
“Reid’s post was meant to be taken in jest … He never intended for anyone to believe his post.”
Reid admitted the post was a mistake and tried to apologize to the teacher, but he was suspended for five days, and later 10 days, for violating school policy against “threatening, intimidating or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.
The district later moved toward expelling Sagehorn, at which point he moved to a neighboring school so as not to jeopardize his admission to North Dakota State University. Sagehorn is suing the school principal and the school district superintendent, among others.
The lawsuit also accuses Rogers Police Chief Jeff Beahen of defamation, after the chief said what Sagehorn posted was “a crime” that carried potential felony charges, likening the two-word missive to crying fire in a crowded theater, according to the lawsuit.
The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute, saying there was “insufficient evidence” a crime had occurred.
“Reid Sagehorn’s name is forever linked with the term ‘felony,' as any Google search can confirm,” his attorneys wrote in the suit.
The suit adds that being forced to pull out of school with four months left in his senior year ruined “one of the most exciting and carefree times in a young person’s life.”
The lawsuit doesn’t name a dollar amount. One of Sagehorn’s attorneys, Robert Bennett, told NBC News “We’d be happy with whatever amount a federal jury would award,” but declined further comment.
Sagehorn graduated from a different high school in May and will be attending North Dakota State University in the fall, Bennett said.
A message left with Elk River Area School District Superintendent Mark Bezek was not immediately returned. Police Chief Beahen’s office declined to comment. No one answered at Sagehorn’s parents’ home.
A legal expert who has followed the case said there's no question the school and police overreacted — but pressure to respond to cyber-bullying and threats posted online, as well as an unfamiliarity with new technology, can cause schools to blow tweets out of proportion.
"This two-word post was foolish and thoughtless and he said he's sorry — kids do that and they always have," said William McGeveran, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School. "If some of this same story had played out and you took the Internet out of it, I doubt there would have been this same level of concern."
Rogers is a suburb of about 11,000 northwest of Minneapolis.