Law & Courts Opinion

You Have Free Speech, So Long as it is Appropriate

By Anthony Cody — November 26, 2011 2 min read
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We are seeing our First Amendment right to free speech redefined by the practices being carried out by our government. In Kansas, high school student Emma Sullivan, 18 years of age, has been ordered to write letters of apology by her school after sending out a tweet to her then-sixty in number followers that read “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” The governor has someone on his staff monitoring Twitter for references to him, and this staffer informed the school about the negative tweet, whereupon the school took action.

A school district spokesperson responded when questioned about this:

In general, 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. Students may express their personal beliefs, views, and opinions, as long as they do so appropriately and in accordance with school policies.

This is the latest instance of government officials taking it upon themselves to determine what is appropriate when it comes to allowed speech.

At UC Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau sent a message to the campus community after UC police attacked peaceful protesters with batons. He wrote:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully; they were told to leave their tents, informed that they would be arrested if they did not, and indicated their intention to be arrested. They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers' efforts to remove the tent. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.

Amazing! So now we have the government telling us precisely how we ought to present ourselves to be arrested, and willing to crack our skulls if we deviate from the approved method.

For those with short memories, the Free Speech Movement, enshrined in hallowed memory on the Mario Savio steps of Sproul Plaza, reached its most dramatic apex when thousands of student protesters surrounded a police car that was attempting to remove someone who had been arrested. Students did not simply present themselves to be arrested.

At UC Davis, the pepper spray assault on students was so outrageous that the administration is now having to backpedal and apologize. On Monday at UC Berkeley, the Faculty Association will debate a proposed “no confidence” motion directed at Chancellor Birgeneau due to the violent response to peaceful protests.

As Robert Reich has noted, free speech has been turned on its head. Money is the currency that can buy speech in the public arena, and the public’s right to speak is being confined and required to be “appropriate.” Even peaceful demonstrators are being punished with beatings and chemical agents.

Our rights exist only to the degree that we exercise them. As Glenn Greenwald wrote,

If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed -- or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet -- many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.

The only response I can think of to this is to take a vocal stand every time this occurs. We must speak out in as many inconvenient and even inappropriate ways as we can think of. Attempts to suppress speech should lead to an expansion of speech in response.

Back in Kansas, public response to the heavy-handed treatment of high school senior Emma Sullivan seems to have caught the governor and school officials by surprise. School officials promise they will look into the incident on Monday. Meanwhile, Emma Sullivan has picked up about two thousand followers on Twitter, and a Facebook page in her support is booming as well.

Update: Last night Emma announced to her now more than 7000 followers on Twitter that she would not be apologizing to the Governor after all. She wrote: “I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong.”

Update #2: Governor Brownback has apologized, saying his staff overreacted. Read more here. Congratulations to Emma for standing firm!

Update #3: Here is a local news interview with Emma, taped a couple of days ago:

What do you think? Should government and school officials make sure speech is appropriate? How should we respond when those speaking out are attacked?

Photo of Emma Sullivan used by her permission.

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