School district won't make Kan. student apologize for Tweet against governor

KANSAS — Dealing with hundreds of new emails each hour was not exactly how Emma Sullivan expected to spend her holiday weekend. But for the 18-year-old Kansan, the mostly supportive inbox deluge was the result of a Tweet she never thought would send the Internet into overdrive.

One week after the senior at Shawnee Mission East HighSchool Tweeted criticism of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, the school districtbacked off the request that Sullivan pen an apology.

“The district acknowledges a student’s right to freedom ofspeech and expression is constitutionally protected,” district officials saidin a statement released Monday. “The district has not censored Miss Sullivannor infringed upon her freedom of speech. She is not required to write a letterof apology to the Governor.”

Instead, it was Brownback who ended up doing theapologizing.

In a statement released just after the school district’sannouncement, Brownback said members of his staff overreacted when theyreported Sullivan’s Tweet to Youth in Government officials; Sullivan was withthat program on a field trip to the state Capitol when she Tweeted aless-than-flattering critique of Brownback.

“Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person. #heblowsalot,” her Tweet from Nov. 21 reads.

Sullivan, who’s involved in photography at school, said sheblames Brownback for cutting arts funding in schools throughout the state.

While Sullivan did not actually speak to Brownback, thegovernor’s staff found her Tweet through a routine search of social media forhis name. When word reached her principal, he told her to write an apologyletter.

She refused.

By Monday, the incident was the talk of news sites and blogsof every stripe. Sullivan’s Twitter account, which had little more than 60followers prior to the Brownback Tweet, soared to more than 11,000 followers bythe end of the day.

Interest did not wane once the district had backed away fromthe apology requirement.

SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the schooldistrict recognized this was a violation of the First Amendment, but lawyers ina number of off-campus speech cases are arguing in front of the Supreme Courtto break down that barrier.

“I think this fairly well illustrates why it’s so dangerousto give schools unlimited authority to monitor what students publish on theWeb,” LoMonte said.

In his statement, Brownback echoed the sentiments onprotecting students’ speech rights.

“Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms,”Brownback said. “I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators whoremind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility anddecorum.”

Decorum is not something required for constitutionalprotection, however, LoMonte noted.

“The fact that a person uses less-than-professional languageto criticize someone is grounds for discussion, not grounds to punish,” hesaid.

Going forward, Sullivan said she hopes the nationalattention sparks a broader discussion.

“I know the school just wants to move on from it,” Sullivansaid. “I think it’s a good starting point for discussion not about me, butabout the issues in this state.”

The Shawnee Mission School District holds its school boardmeeting tonight. Sullivan said she will not be in attendance, but she expectsothers who support her likely will speak up during the open-forum portion ofthe agenda.

“If people want to keep this issue, it doesn’t need to beabout my school,” she said. “It needs to be about the First Amendment.”