High school senior Emma Sullivan has found herself at the center of a free speech controversy after being punished for tweeting disparaging remarks about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
After meeting Brownback on a field trip on Nov. 21, the 18-year-old from Shawnee Mission East tweeted: Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot. Sullivan had in fact made no such comments, and had posted the tweet, which she described as joking around, because she didn't support Brownback and wanted to make her opinions known online.
Sam Brownback's office however, monitors social media for any clips, postings or tweets that mention the Kansas governor's name. Before she knew it, Emma Sullivan was being hauled into the principal's office, and a national debate over Twitter's impact, and what high school students can and cannot say, had begun.
It is a school issue.
When Brownback's office saw the Twitter posting, representatives contacted the Youth in Government program at Shawnee Mission East, which had gone to the Kansas governor's offices as part of a mock government exercise.
Emma Sullivan was then summoned to the principal's office, where she received an hour-long lecture reprimanding her for her comments. Principal Karl R. Krawitz laid into me about how this was unacceptable and an embarrassment, Sullivan told The Wichita Eagle. He said I had created this huge controversy and everyone was up in arms about it... and now he had to do damage control.
Krawitz then ordered Sullivan to write a letter of apology to Gov. Brownback, even suggesting talking points to cover.
When asked about the tweet by news sources, Krawitz defended his actions. It is a school issue, a private issue, not a public matter, the principal said.
Public School Speech
The issue of course, is that it's not just a private matter, or an issue between a student and her school. Emma Sullivan's tweet prompts questions about the monitoring of social networking sites, and the extent to which public high school students are protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The governor's office views the tweet as inappropriate and offensive, and has stuck by their decision to report Sullivan to her school. That [the Twitter post] wasn't respectful, Sherrien Jones-Sontag, director of communication, told MSN.
The message was forwarded, she went on, simply as a way to make Shawnee Mission East aware what their students were saying in regards to the governor's appearance.
It is my right.
Many news sources, bloggers and political-legal advisers disagree, and their support for Emma Sullivan, and condemnation of the governor's office and the school's heavy-handed response, has thrust the senior into the national media spotlight.
Sullivan posted the infamous tweet on Nov. 21. By Nov. 25, she was appearing on NBC and CNN, discussing public school censorship and the limits of free speech, and giving exclusives to The Wichita Eagle and nationally distributed papers.
I knew it would cause some uproar, Sullivan said, but I definitely didn't think it would get to a national level. She has yet to write the formal apology to Gov. Brownback, and many support her in her decision to stick by her Twitter post, which she calls harmless.
Although public school students' right to free speech is not unlimited. ThinkProgress blogger Ian Millhiser wrote, schools are generally only allowed to discipline students for speech that is disruptive to the school's learning environment.
Millhiser referenced the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court ruled that public school students and teachers were protected by the First Amendment, and that the school, if taking disciplinary action in response, must be able to prove that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid discomfort and unpleasantness.
Sullivan stands by this position. I believe it is my right to state my opinion, she told The Eagle.
The great raucous arena.
The Shawnee Mission school district is looking into the incident, but spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal has already issued a statement questioning whether First Amendment rights are truly applicable in this case.
In general, Neal said in an email, students on school-sponsored field trips, in which they are representing the school, would be expected to conduct themselves in accordance with school district policies, including use of electronic devices.
This addendum to appropriate public behavior is a burgeoning legal issue, one that is sure to be increasingly debated as sites like Twitter, Facebook and even Flickr or Tumblr are evaluated based on the ever-expanding realm of the public sphere.
Students may express their personal beliefs, views and opinions, Neal said, as long as they do so appropriately and in accordance with school policies.
Some bloggers, like Barb Shelly at The Kansas City Star, agree with her. Brownback's office has the right to be offended, Shelly wrote, and the school had the right to be embarrassed. It's all part of the great raucous arena known as freedom of expression.
The right to be offended and embarrassed however, does not extend to action, at least if certain Supreme Court decisions are to be upheld. If public school sanctions on what is and is not protected under free speech is expanded into the online realm, cases like Tinker vs. Des Moines will need to be re-opened and re-evaluated.
Neal's comments on electronic devices could imply that a public high school student is constrained by school guidelines even if they're posting on a private Twitter feed at home.
The whole exercise is absurd.
The defense of free speech goes hand in hand with anxiety over its monitoring. Many in the blogosphere, on Twitter and in major news networks have zoned in not only on the fact that Emma Sullivan was punished, but on the revelation that Gov. Brownback's office spends time combing through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to monitor the Kansas public's comments about him.
The fact that Brownback's staff tracks his press clippings is nothing new to the world of politics. What is more unnerving to many is the idea that an elected official tracks voters' (and some minors') comments about his governing and then sics his staff on those deemed insufficiently reverential.
Many Kansas natives were even more annoyed that the governor is presumably using state funds to track social media.
Good for you! one commenter wrote on Sullivan's Facebook page. How a 'small government' can use state resources to harass you is beyond me.
Speaking as a taxpayer in Kansas, Forbes contributor Alex Knapp wrote, I'm more than a little annoyed that my government has cut funding for the arts and other programs, but apparently thinks its a good use of taxpayer dollars to have the governor's office troll the [private] Twitter feeds of high school kids to make sure they're not saying anything mean about him.
The whole exercise, Knapp finished, is absurd.
Right to Tweet?
Whatever comes from the debate still raging against (and for) Gov. Brownback and the Shawnee Mission school district, Emma Sullivan's life will never be quite the same, and social media will be a big part of that change.
Her Facebook has been flooded with friend requests and posts of support, and her Twitter following has exploded, going from 60 followers to almost 3,000. Sullivan's tweets meanwhile, have gone from notes about Twilight and her new car to expressions of gratitude and quotes from public figures, including this recent reference to Gandhi: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Sullivan is still baffled that the governor's office would care about a high schooler's tweet, insisting that Brownback's office made a far bigger deal out of the affair than it was. She will continue however, to be an outspoken opponent of the Kansas governor, and is grateful that so many people across the political spectrum have supported her 'right to tweet.'
We [Sullivan and her friends] all are liberal, and we are opposed to a lot of his views, she says. I'm just an 18-year-old girl who knows what I believe, and I know what he believes, and we disagree. That is not going to change.
What has shifted however, is her understanding of modern politics, and the way social media affects it. Twitter has a lot more impact than I thought, Emma Sullivan said. I was shocked. I'm still shocked.