Is a Disrespectful Tweet Free Speech? Not For Kansas Governor Sam Brownback


Kansas governor Sam Brownback should have remembered that there's no such thing as bad publicity before he demanded a high school senior write him a letter of apology after tweeting negatively about him.

Eighteen-year-old Emma Sullivan tweeted “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot,” after hearing Brownback speak in Topeka, Kansas. Brownback deemed the tweet “disrespectful” and ordered her school to force her to write an apology letter. Sullivan decided not to write the letter and her story gained media coverage, after which Brownback claimed he over-reacted and that she didn't need to write an apology.

Though the wording may not have been the most sophisticated, her tweet was an expression of free speech and she had no need to apologize. Brownback’s initial reaction only works to discredits Brownback and brings attention to Sullivan instead. Brownback's decision to cut arts funding for public schools was her main reason for writing the disparaging tweet. Sullivan has a platform, and now publicity and an outlet to further her agenda. Last week, the teenager had about 60 followers, since the incident she attained over 14,000 followers, about four times more than Brownback’s Twitter following. Brownback underestimated how quickly news spreads via social networks, which effectively ruined his image since his attempts to punish Sullivan for voicing her opinon resonates with proponents of free speech.

This generation has been characterized by political apathy. If politicians want more people, especially young adults, to be interested in politics, incidents like these are simply unacceptable. If anything, Brownback should have applauded her for speaking her mind. If Sullivan wrote an editorial or drew a political cartoon for example, Brownback would probably not have reacted the way he did, much less noticed. Though she did not detail exactly why she thinks he “blows a lot” and she probably could have come up with a more sophisticated way to argue her point, she's still making a highly relevant political analysis. She didn't expect it to be so important, but ultimately this action shows that her opinion doesn't matter and that an 18-year-olds way of expressing themselves doesn't matter. This incident could potentially discourage other young adults from getting involved in politics.

Social media is a powerful tool to connect constituents to candidates. There are ways people can utilize twitter to bolster their campaigns, but as evidenced by Brownback's misstep, it can also be a reflection of a problem with politician's conception of free speech. People like Brownback argue that they want to protect the Constitution; they really mean they want to protect it when it's convenient for their political agenda. First Amendment rights mean nothing to politicians if it doesn't make them look good.

Photo Credit: VictoryNH