MN Students Getting Attention After Successful Suits Against Districts

MN Students Getting Attention After Successful Suits Against Districts

Let’s accept this: Back in ancient Greece, there was a guy in a toga going on about Plato, as a student handed a smart-ass note to a friend. Students passing impertinent missives are nothing new. Only today the notes are social media posts, and what is new is that schools are trying to restrict them, even when posted off-campus. Lawyers are taking notice.

In June, Reid Sagehorn filed suit after he was expelled from Rogers High School after joking on Twitter that he had been romantically involved with a teacher. This comes after a settlement in the case of Riley Stratton, who, three years ago, at age 12, was disciplined after posting on Facebook that a hall monitor was mean. Her mother sued and won a $70,000 settlement.

Stratton’s lawyer, Wally Hilke of Lindquist & Vennum, is shocked the case took that long to resolve. “Our strategy was to give the school district a chance to do the right thing,” he says. “That turned out to be a tremendous failure.”

The facts were never in dispute: School administrators and a uniformed sheriff took Stratton into a room and demanded she tell them her Facebook password. Hilke claimed First and Fourth amendment violations, and the settlement required that the school rewrite its policies to forgo dominion over at-home, non-threatening social media usage.

The American Civil Liberties Union supports such outcomes. “It’s going to take a while for schools to recognize that social media is no different from kids sitting around talking at McDonald’s,” says Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU’s Minnesota chapter.

Hilke believes more lawsuits are coming “as students become aware that schools can’t punish them for off-campus speech.”

It’s all part of a trend of law firms finding pockets of business in social media disputes. Last year Gray Plant Mooty offered a first-of-its-kind social media legal guide for businesses, and its 27-lawyer higher education group has been finding work helping educators write social media policies designed to preempt Stratton-type scenarios.

“Social media questions are becoming an important part of our practice, and we don’t see that changing,” says attorney Kathryn Nash, a principal at the firm. “Technology is evolving quickly . . . there’s always going to be something new coming up.”

—Adam Wahlberg