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The twittering teen and the governor



Well at least this time a scandal involving a politician, a young girl and a Twitter account didn’t involve pictures of someone’s junk. However, when 18-year-old high school senior Emma Sullivan was visiting the Kansas state capital and tweeted her thoughts about Governor Sam Brownback, namely that she thought “he sucked,” the kerfuffle that ensued was unimaginable. 

Sullivan was touring the Kansas state capital as part of a Youth in Government program run through her high school. While lurking in the back of the group, Sullivan sent a tweet to her then 65 followers “just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot”. 

While she probably could have gone with a more creative hashtag and her punctuation leaves something to be desired, it sounds like she was expressing a valid opinion on a politician and public figure. However, in a move that would make Nixon proud, Brownback’s staff monitors Twitter for all mentions of the governor’s name and responds accordingly. 

In this case, the staff used a tactic straight from the playground and went and told on Sullivan to her high school principal. Sullivan was then called into the principal’s office and made to write an apology letter to Brownback. 

She refused to write the letter. After the public outcry over the incident, both the principal and the governor have backtracked. 

The intersection between freedom of speech and schools has always been a relationship fraught with tension, weighed on one end by the need for the school’s need to discipline students and on the other by the student’s constitutional rights. 

The landmark case on this issue, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, held that schools may only restrict student speech is they have a reasonable expectation that the speech will cause a substantial disruption. However, the rise of social media has blurred the lines of what speech related issues schools can or cannot discipline students for. With the Supreme Court recently declining to hear a case about a student who blogged criticisms of her teachers and the circuits currently split on the issue, this area is a legal wilderness. 

However, this seems to be a clear-cut issue. Sullivan was tweeting about her political viewpoints, a perfectly legitimate, if not eloquent expression. When asked later to clarify why she felt the way she did, she was upset that he had cut all state funding for the arts. 

Apparently funding a social media police is a pricey undertaking. Her opinions are completely in line with most Kansans, Brownback currently has a 52 percent disapproval rating. If Brownback is going to continue in politics, he’s going to need to develop a thicker skin. Sullivan couldn’t have been the only one in the Twitterverse that day tweeting disparaging remarks about Brownback, what was his staff’s response to those tweets? 

If the tweet of an 18-year-old girl can reduce you to lashing out at her for her opinion, what does that say about your authority? If Sullivan is going to be in trouble, she should be in trouble for using her phone at an inappropriate time. She should not be punished for the content of the tweet.

Should Sullivan be reprimanded? Yes, but she should be reprimanded for being a brat, lurking at the back of a presentation and tweeting on her phone instead of respectfully listening. I will defend Sullivan’s right to express her political viewpoints, but just as long as she waits until she’s back on the school bus to do so. 

We need to protect the speech rights of students, but we must also take the time to teach them that there is a time and a place for the expression. 

Just because you can tweet something from instantaneously from your iPhone doesn’t mean you should. And maybe, along the way we could also teach them more articulate criticism than #blowsalot.


Brittany Sharkey is a second year law student from Oceanside, Calif. She graduated from NYU in 2010 with a degree in politics. Follow her on Twitter @brittanysharkey.