#FREEREID: Civil vs. criminal defamation - KMSP-TV

#FREEREID: Civil vs. criminal defamation

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ELK RIVER, Minn. (KMSP) -

Hennepin County prosecutors are now reviewing the case that led to the suspension of Reid Sagehorn, the Rogers High School student who may face criminal charges to protect a young teacher's rights.

Bill Hjertstedt, president of the Elk River Education Association has been in daily contact with the young, Minnesota-bred teacher who was the subject of Reid Sagehorn's tweet.

"She's doing well, but it has been very stressful for her," Hjertstedt admitted.

On Tuesday morning, Fox 9 News learned the 28-year-old gym teacher and girls soccer coach was also targeted by others who made sexually charged comments on a now-deleted website called "Rogers Confessions."

"She is a totally innocent third party and was not involved whatsoever," Hjertstedt assured.

Rogers police have since put the case into the hands of Hennepin County prosecutors, but local attorney Gregory Abbott warns that a criminal defamation case could prove ineffective for the teacher.

"An intimate relationship between a teacher and a student is a crime," he explained. "If this had actually happened, the teacher would be subject to criminal liability."

While false could be enough to damage her professional reputation, Abbot said proving a criminal defamation charge is both rare and difficult.

"The county attorney is going to bear the burden of truth to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this was not sarcastic or not ironic," said Abbott.

Sagehorn claims sarcasm flavored his response of, "Actually, yes." The senior was replying to an anonymous tweet alleging he'd kissed the gym teacher.

Attorneys tell FOX 9 sarcasm is protected under the "parody" and "satire" umbrella.

"He's got First Amendment rights to be sarcastic and ironic," stated Abbott.

Yet, even though a criminal case may not pan out, Abbot said a civil suit may still be on the table.

"There is a such thing as defamation per se. There are things that you can say that are so defamatory that we presume that you're going to be able to have damages -- and one of the things is to accuse someone of a serious crime," he said.

Even so, the reason behind Sagehorn's suspension through April boils down to interpretation.

"When you're behind the keyboard and you're typing in and trying to be funny, sometimes it just doesn't translate to the other side of the screen," Abbott said.

The gym teacher could be deemed a public figure if the case makes it to court. If so, she would have to prove the students who posted the claims did so with malice and acted recklessly without care that what they posted was false.

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