By Joel LeVangia
By now you’ve probably seen that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has blamed his “staff” for “overreacting” to a tweet written by a Kansas high school student that read: “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person (hash)heblowsalot.” Brownback proceeded to apologize for the “overreaction of his staff” saying, “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” And what do you know, Brownback? Freedom of speech IS one of our most treasured freedoms! What a wonderful opportunity for all of us to be informed of that! I am so glad your “staff” bullied some teenage girl so we could all be informed of something I’m pretty sure most Americans know already.
To be clear, the young lady in question, Emma Sullivan, was being lectured by Brownback when she sent the offending (to some) tweet. The governor’s “staff” which monitors social media for mentions of the present gubernatorial name “Brownback,” saw the tweet and contacted the Youth in Government program Ms. Sullivan was attending. This led to Ms. Sullivan allegedly spending an hour in a principal’s office being given various bullet points for an apology letter from her to the governor.
To her credit, Ms. Sullivan refused and was assisted by her elder sister Olivia, who exercised her freedom of speech and alerted the media. The media, in turn, exercised its freedom of speech and proceeded to beat Mssr. Brownback’s “staff” with the “freedom of speech” stick. This sequence of events culminated in the patronizing reminder from g. Brownback that “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” Although not before Ms. Sullivan’s school district issued a statement saying in part, “Whether and to whom any apologies are issued will be left to the individuals involved. The issue has resulted in many teachable moments concerning the use of social media. The district does not intend to take any further action on this matter.”
Regrettably, the district has not fully appreciated some of the “learnable” moments from the episode. They, like the governor, suffer from sort of a freedom of speech deficit disorder. If they were exercising their freedoms as they and all Americans should, their statements might have read:
Brownback: My staff, who I hired and am responsible for, took issue with a public statement by a citizen of the great state of Kansas and proceeded to contact her school to inform them of the comment. The likely intent of this communication was to harass, intimidate, and silence the citizen concerned. It is deeply wrong to manifestly and intentionally suppress dissent in a country founded on the same. I know this, my staff knows this, and our actions in response to the initial comment have been at least as immature and irresponsible as the comment itself. I apologize to all the citizens of Kansas and specifically to Miss Emma Sullivan for our lapse in judgment – which will not be repeated.
Shawnee Mission East School District: In response to a communication from Governor Sam Brownback’s office, the Shawnee Mission East School district and some of its employees made a bad situation worse. After being informed of a negative “tweet” from one of our high school seniors, we attempted to coerce a letter of apology out of the young lady to be sent to the governor’s office. This hypothetical letter could in no way affect the governor and was therefore merely to be a symbol of institutional control over an individual. The Shawnee Mission East School District and its employees must never forget that as a public American institution, it and they have a responsibility to inculcate the highest ideals of this country in its students. Those same students are bound to say dumb things on twitter, but the Shawnee Mission East School District must always respect their right to say them – particularly when they in no way reference the district itself. For this reason we apologize to Miss Emma Sullivan for intervening on the governor’s behalf against her freedom of speech. We promise to be more vigilant in the face of future temptations to pervert the paths of American public discourse.
To which Ms. Sullivan might reasonably reply: I am gratified by the statements issued by the governor and the school district. Although I was initially disappointed by the reaction to my tweet, which I consider merely a means of communicating to a large group of my “friends” or “twitter followers” at the same time, I am now satisfied that the appropriate attitudes have set in. I realize that things I publish on twitter have the potential to reflect more broadly than my own personal “circle of acquaintances” and in retrospect regret characterizing the governor as a person who “fellates often, frequently, or to a great degree,” as the hashtag I assigned to him indicates. However, we should all recognize that the restrictive nature of tweeting and the difficulty of fully expressing oneself in 140 characters can prevent the complete development of ideas. With this in mind, I would like to apologize to the governor for my crude expression and promise him that I will work to achieve at least as much publicity for the fully articulated reasons I disagree with his policies as this unfortunate episode has generated.