We have been discussing the trend toward suspending and expelling students (and teachers) for comments that they make on social media (here and here and here and here and here and here) Minnesota high school student Reid Sagehorn has the added problem of not just suspension but a police investigation after posting two words in a tweet. He is now suing both the Elk River District and the local police.
Sagehorn was engaging in the usual mindless banter with his friends when an anonymous tweet suggested the he had kissed a young gym teacher at Rogers High School. Sagehorn thought it was a joke and responded “Actually yes.” That was all that it took. A parent ran to authorities who opened a full fledge investigation of “possible criminal defamation charges.” The very notion of “criminal defamation” is a bit odd since defamation is meant to be a tort, a civil matter.
There was never any evidence of an actual improper relationship. Police investigated the teenager but the local prosecutor decided not to press charges. However, the school deemed the two words as violating school policy against “threatening, intimidating or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member.” He joked that he kissed his teacher. School officials suspended him for five days and then extended it to ten days and then moved toward expulsion. He was forced to enroll in a different high school just four months before graduation. Again, he joked that he kissed his teacher.
Students have rallied to the side of Sagehorn and demanded that he be allowed to graduate with the rest of his class. For me, it is the perfect storm of idiocy in our school system: a combination of the criminalization of bad conduct and then the blind punishment of students under zero tolerance rationales. Students have free speech rights, particularly outside of school. However, it is part of a growing line of cases granting sweeping deference to school officials and curtailing the free speech rights of students. I have long disagreed with that trend. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), the Supreme Court supported the first amendment rights of Iowa residents John F. Tinker (15 years old), John’s younger sister Mary Beth Tinker (13 years old), and their friend Christopher Eckhardt (16 years old) in wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. In his majority decision, Justice Abe Fortas held that “undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” In a statement would would seem to fit this case, Fortas found that “the record does not demonstrate any facts which might reasonably lead school authorities to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities, and no disturbances or disorders on the school premises in fact occurred.” Since Tinker, the Supreme Court has steadily limited the speech rights of students as in the ruling in the “Bong Hits For Jesus” case.
Here a student is being punished for sarcasm outside of school. It is a troubling lesson for these students who will be the next generation of voters. Our schools are teaching this generation to yield to arbitrary and unchallengeable authority. The reason is that, even when such draconian decisions are rescinded, no teacher or administrator is ever punished for abusing students in this fashion.