Tweet backlash: Kan. officials learn lesson about free speech

Monday, November 28, 2011

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s social media staff isn’t doing him any favors. Taking exception when they came across a disrespectful tweet by a suburban Kansas City high school senior participating in a Youth in Government program, the staffers alerted program managers, who reported the student to her principal. The principal then demanded that she apologize.

The result? An adolescent tweet — “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” — directed to 65 of the high school student’s closest friends is now a national story. Type “Gov. Brownback sucked” in Google and you’ll get 130,000 results. Whoops.

Emma Sullivan’s tweet was both crude and untrue. She didn’t actually say anything to the governor. But efforts to punish her for her free expression backfired on every adult involved.

Why do officials so often fail to understand that Americans are born with free speech? While courts have held that children grow into those rights as they age, there’s no question that a high school student has every right to criticize the governor of her state.

Courts have upheld some restrictions on students participating in school-sanctioned events, but Sullivan’s tweet was anything but disruptive to the educational process. This was an 18-year-old messing with her friends, sharing an essentially private message to her circle. It was only the governor’s office’s efforts to seek out any reference to Brownback that led the staffers to stumble upon it.

An older generation accustomed to seeing significance in anything set in type tends to overreact to online posts, blogs and tweets. There’s a younger generation of Americans who share what they think as soon as they think it, and no one is going to police that.

Youth in Government is designed to give young people an understanding of how government works, including when it malfunctions. That was underscored today when Brownback, rallying from this public relations fiasco, apologized.

“My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize,” Brownback said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”

There’s a certain irony in the timing of this incident. The First Amendment Center is part of a national coalition of educational and news organizations promoting “Free to Tweet,” a national contest pegged to the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Students ages 14-22 are eligible to compete for $5,000 scholarships by expressing themselves through tweets on that date. It appears that Emma Sullivan entered a little early.

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