Teen’s Political Tweet Sparks Free Speech Discussion

    November 29, 2011
    Josh Wolford

A Kansas teen who was asked to apologize for a politically charged tweet has made a stand of sorts, and hopes her tweet will do something even larger for free speech in social media.

Last week, 18-year-old Emma Sullivan was attending a youth in government conference with her fellow classmates at a Topeka high school when she submitted the tweet that would draw the ire of government and school officials and gain her a few thousand new followers.

At what point do you think it is reasonable to limit speech on social media? Let us know in the comments.

As Kansas Governor and former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R) was speaking at the conference, Sullivan decided to tweet this during the address:

Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot(image) 6 days ago via txt · powered by @socialditto

Apparently, Sullivan didn’t actually say anything to the Governor, and was really just joking around with her friends.

While the tweet might not be the most eloquent expression of political frustration, it’s pretty innocuous. But it was enough to catch the attention of the Governor’s office, who spotted the tweet in question during routine social media monitoring.

Presumably a tad perturbed, Brownback’s people contacted Sullivan’s high school principal. Sullivan was then asked to apologize for her tweet, and according to Politico, the principal even instructed her to use certain talking points in the apology letter.

Sullivan refused the request to apologize, tweeting this late Sunday:

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(image) 14 hours ago via web · powered by @socialditto

“I don’t think I should write the letter, and I don’t think it would be the best move for me,” she said. “At this time, I do not think an apology would be a sincere thing for me to do.”

She also said that she would do it again.

Why does she think Governor Brownback blows a lot anyways? Apparently, she disapproves of his decision to get rid of the entire Kansas Arts Commission budget.

Some Twitter users have jumped on the #heblowsalot hashtag to express their disappointment of Brownback and other officials involved:

If Santorum is a noun, let’s make Brownback a verb: “to whine, complain and demand apology when your feelings get hurt” #Heblowsalot #p2(image) 1 day ago via web · powered by @socialditto

Gov. Brownback’s office tattled on a high school girl who tweeted “#heblowsalot.” I’m tattling on them for being a colossal Brownback.(image) 1 hour ago via web · powered by @socialditto

Retweet if you think Gov Brownback owes Emma Sullivan an apology, for violating her 1st Amendment rights… #heblowsalot(image) 15 hours ago via web · powered by @socialditto

So, is young miss Sullivan taking a stand to become a model of free speech in social media? Before her semi-political tweet, her Twitter feed was mostly crowded with Justin Bieber and Twilight. But her refusal to apologize has gained her a whole new following, as she has gained a few thousand followers in just a few days.

Let’s face it: her tweet regarding Governor Brownback doesn’t exactly amount to astute political commentary. I mean, she did use the hashtag #heblowsalot. But Sullivan’s lack of eloquence is really beside the point. That point being – why did Governor Brownback’s team get their panties in a wad over this tweet?

Sure, social media monitoring can be a useful tool for someone in office. It allows them to gauge public sentiment on a variety of issues and also receive live feedback on decisions they make that affect their constituents.

But contacting a girl’s school to complain about a critical tweet is not the type of monitoring that politicians should be engaged in. Do these people really have nothing better to do than troll Twitter looking for dissenting viewpoints….from high schoolers? Come on guys, thicken up the skin a little bit.

Honestly, there is no room in a free society for the mere suggestion that someone should apologize for expressing their opinions on social media. There are situations where free speech on social media sites might not cover certain content. Take for example the head of the College Republicans at UT Austin, who made headlines when she tweeted, “Y’all as tempting as it may be, don’t shoot Obama. We need him to go down in history as the WORST president we’ve EVER had! #2012.”

Sure, that’s in poor taste. But even with a tweet like that, there is a debate as to whether or not that speech is dangerous enough to warrant restriction.

But there is one thing I am sure of, no debate necessary: the hashtag #heblowsalot does not deserve a governmental reprimand and it sure as hell doesn’t warrant an apology letter.

Late Monday, Governor Brownback and his team came to their senses and apologized to the student, saying that his staff overreacted and emphasizing that he cares greatly for freedom of speech. Here’s the statement, which he posted as a note on Facebook:

“My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms. I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future. I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum. Again, I apologize for our over-reaction.”

The school district also weighed in on Monday, saying that Sullivan did not have to apologize for her tweet.

What do you think about the Governor’s actions? Is there any situation where an elected official should scold a constituent for a disparaging tweet? Did the school have a right to initially demand an apology from Sullivan? Or do you think that all of this is a ridiculous misuse of authority? Let us know in the comments.


Josh Wolford
Josh Wolford is a writer for WebProNews. He likes beer, Japanese food, and movies that make him feel weird afterward. Mostly beer. Follow him on Twitter: @joshgwolf Instagram: @joshgwolf Google+: Joshua Wolford StumbleUpon: joshgwolf