Three years ago, an anonymous user at a website called “Rogers Confessions” posed an indelicate question to 17-year old Reid Sagehorn. Was it really true that Sagehorn — at the time, a junior at Rogers High School — had made out with a certain female gym teacher?
In a moment of snark, Sagehorn tweeted out, “Actually, yeah.” With those two words, Sagehorn inadvertently ignited a public furor over school discipline and student speech in the social media age.
School officials cracked down. A five-day suspension turned into a 10-day suspension and, when Sagehorn’s parents and supporters complained, the push-back intensified. At a press conference, the local police chief averred that Sagehorn might be charged with criminal defamation over his “obscene” tweet. Believing he had no choice, Sagehorn wound up withdrawing from the district.
Observing was Ron Rosenbaum, the lawyer and talk radio veteran, a regular on KFAN-100.3 FM. On air, Rosenbaum made no secret that he was appalled by the chief’s remarks and the school district’s hardball disciplinary approach.
As it turned out, Curt Sagehorn – Reid’s father – was a KFAN listener. He contacted Rosenbaum, who promptly recruited veteran criminal defense ace Joe Friedberg and Robert Bennett, known for collecting big settlements in police brutality cases. Bennett then brought on Paul Dworak, his associate.
Sagehorn sued the school district, the high school principal, the police chief and the school liaison officer in federal court for trampling on Sagehorn’s First Amendment rights. After losing summary judgment, the school district and police department cried uncle. Admitting no wrongdoing, they agreed to a total payout of $425,000.
“I think they realized that they were just going to be spending an awful lot of money losing money,” explained Bennett. Because it was a Section 1983 action, Sagehorn, if he were to prevail on the merits, would be entitled to attorney fees of up to $650 an hour.
The victory for the ad hoc legal team came with a sad post-script. About six months after the case concluded, Rosenbaum suffered a recurrence of multiple myeloma and died at the age of 68.