Published Online: December 6, 2011
Published in Print: December 7, 2011, as Teenager's Tweet About Governor Causes Uproar

Policy Brief

Teenager's Tweet About Governor Causes Uproar

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A student's recent tweet criticizing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback soon became the center of a heated debate about students' free-speech rights.

The saga began Nov. 21 when Emma Sullivan, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School, tweeted: "Just made mean comments at gov.brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot," as she and other students involved in a Youth in Government program listened to the Republican's welcome. (She didn't actually make those comments or meet him.)

The governor's staff noticed the Twitter message and brought it to the attention of educators. The 18-year-old said she was summoned before Principal Karl Krawitz, who scolded her and told her to write an apology.

Reports of the dispute—and the apology demand—soon exploded on the Internet.

"There's no reason why a voting-age citizen, whether in or out of high school, should be prevented from making negative comments about an elected official," wrote blogger E.D. Kain on the Forbes website. "Our political leaders are not gods. They're just men and women, flawed like the rest of us."

But others said manners and civility are important goals, particularly for educators. "I am not asking her to agree with Brownback, but respect for our institutions is an important thing for schools to teach," wrote blogger Anthony Colleluori, a New York lawyer.

Still others thought the teenager's comments may have been rude, but that the governor's office overreacted.

District officials decided last week that she would not have to apologize for the message, but Mr. Brownback did, saying he was sorry that his staff "overreacted."

Some experts said free-speech rights are always complicated when students are involved, and the issues can be especially difficult when students use social media like Facebook and Twitter.

"Because it's very unmanageable and unwieldy and it goes viral like this tweet did, it's very scary for everybody," said Michelle Sherman, a lawyer who studies social-media legal issues.

Vol. 31, Issue 13, Page 24

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