Monday, November 28, 2011

Teens and Tweets - Emma Sullivan and Governor Brownback and #heblowsalot

So... there's been a little ruckus lately because an 18 year old said something on Twitter about Governor Brownback that his staff didn't like. Her principal demanded she write an apology letter. She has refused.

Regardless of your politics, you should be glad 18 year-old Emma Sullivan understands she has the right of free speech. Her parents or her teachers or someone has done a good job on that one.

Only because people like her have stood up and demanded to exercise their civil rights do we have any. It should not be the role of the Governor's office to try and silence anyone through fear or other coercion, which I can only assume was their intent when they contacted the Youth in Government program about it. Thomas Jefferson said, "Does the government fear us? Or do we fear the government? When the people fear the government, tyranny has found victory."

As citizens, we should be questioning why the Governor's staff felt a need to call the organization involved. I think it's great that they are monitoring Twitter - very smart - but their actions indicate they have little understanding of social media. A little knowledge can be more dangerous than none it seems. They made a very poor decision to take something out of that realm and bring it into another one.

Ms. Sullivan had 65 followers when she sent the infamous tweet with the hashtag "#heblowsalot." Now she has thousands of followers. In addition, her comments are a topic on multiple high-profile sites and national news organizations. People are tweeting their support for her views by using the same hashtag. If the Governor's staff had just left it alone, a few of her friends might have gotten a chuckle and that would have been it.

If I were a parent at Ms. Sullivan's school, I would be mighty, mighty, mighty unhappy with the principal. He instructed her to write an apology letter, providing her with talking points. She has refused, saying it would be insincere. It seems the principal missed an amazing "teaching moment" about civil rights and how best to exercise them. It seems Ms. Sullivan understands how to be appropriate in this circumstance.

Might Ms. Sullivan have said something less intense? Yes. Might the Governor's office have kept it in perspective? Yes. Her comments were not kind, but they were not yelling "fire" in a crowded theater either. She is allowed to express her opinion. Others are allowed to express theirs. Someone could have tweeted back that they were loving the Governor's presentation. They would have had the same right to express that opinion. (The fact that no one did is a little "market research" the Governor's staff might pay attention to instead of being upset about a tweet going out to 65 people.)

We cannot have democracy without free speech. It is part of the constitution. It is a right each of us has. We are allowed to disagree. We are even allowed to do so without respect. That might not be the most productive approach, but it is our right.

I can't help but think about the Pastor Martin Niemöller quote made famous by others in recent years:
First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Read more:

The Governor apologized for the overreaction of his staff. He should hire people who understand freedom of speech. And so should the school board.
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