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Tiff over Kansas teenager’s tweet stirs views far and wide

By DAVE HELLING
The Kansas City Star

The Kansas teenager who fired the tweet heard ’round the nation says she’s ready for her life to return to normal — eventually.

But Shawnee Mission East senior Emma Sullivan said Monday she isn’t sorry she told a few dozen Twitter friends last week that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback “sucked,” and she isn’t backing away from the media and political tsunami the message has provoked.

“I stand by the tweet,” the 18-year-old student said before a planned flight to New York for a TV appearance. “If anything, it’s opened a lot of doors for a lot of people.”

The grown-ups on the other side of Sullivan’s tangled Twitter tempest were more conciliatory. School district officials decided Monday she would not have to apologize for the message — she says she was not going to, anyway.

But Brownback said he was sorry.

“My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize,” the Republican governor’s statement said. “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”

Monday’s varied reactions may mark the beginning of the end for a drama that started Thanksgiving Day, when the story went public.

While students involved in a Youth in Government program listened to Brownback’s welcome Nov. 21, Sullivan tweeted: “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” She didn’t actually make those comments and didn’t meet Brownback in Topeka; later, she said the message was part of an ongoing discussion with friends.

But the governor’s staff noticed the tweet and brought it to the attention of educators. Sullivan said she was summoned before Shawnee Mission East Principal Karl Krawitz, who scolded her and told her to write an apology to the governor.

Reports of the dispute — and the apology demand — soon engulfed much of the Internet debate-o-sphere.

“There’s no reason why a voting-age citizen, whether in or out of high school, should be prevented from making negative comments about an elected official,” wrote blogger E.D. Kain on the Forbes website. “Our political leaders are not gods. They’re just men and women, flawed like the rest of us.”

Ken Layne, a blogger on the Wonkette website: “Not even Republican primary voters wanted Sam Brownback as a presidential candidate, so the right-wing nobody went back to Kansas, both metaphorically and literally. He’s governor of Kansas, apparently. And he’s still a thin-skinned jerk.”

But others said manners and civility are important goals, particularly for educators. “Saying Brownback ‘sucks’ is just juvenile,” wrote blogger Anthony Colleluori, a New York lawyer. “I am not asking her to agree with Brownback, but respect for our institutions is an important thing for schools to teach.”

There was a third view: That Sullivan’s comments may have been rude, but the reactions of the governor’s office and the school district made a very small molehill into a very big mountain.

“My advice would have been to ignore it,” said Eric Melin, a marketing and communications specialist with Spiral16, a company that monitors social media for businesses. “She was tweeting about Justin Bieber and Twilight until this happened... What they didn’t need to do is turn it into a media event.”

Major newspapers coast to coast picked up the Kansas governor’s mea culpa for his office Monday.

By that afternoon Sullivan had more than 11,000 followers on Twitter, almost four times as many as Brownback. She juggled network interview requests while responding to email questions from national newspaper reporters. Her story popped up on political news websites like Huffington Post and Politico, and was a top-ranked story on Google News. The hash-tag drew hundreds of tweets.

“It’s not more than I bargained for. It is more than I expected,” Sullivan said.

As national attention to the dispute grew, the Shawnee Mission School District decided Monday Sullivan didn’t need to apologize after all.

“The district has not censored Miss Sullivan nor infringed on her freedom of speech,” the district said in a news release. “Whether and to whom any apologies are issued will be left to the individuals involved.”

Some experts said the district’s decision was not a surprise, given the potential of a legal challenge to any serious disciplinary measures. But they said free-speech rights are always complicated when students are involved — and the issues can be especially difficult when students use social media like Facebook and Twitter, where they may be communicating more with friends than the public at large.

“Because it’s very unmanageable and unwieldy and it goes viral like this tweet did, it’s very scary for everybody,” said Michelle Sherman, a lawyer who studies social media legal issues.

Courts have wrestled with free-speech cases involving students for decades. In its most recent decision on the issue, the Supreme Court upheld a school district that disciplined a student for displaying a “Bong hits for Jesus” sign during an off-campus event.

But Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri, said Sullivan’s tweet should enjoy more First Amendment protection.

“This is pure political speech,” he said. “There’s no doubt that had any other citizen who was not a secondary education student said the same thing about Governor Brownback, it would have been core-protected political speech.”

Those other citizens are likely to talk about the incident for some time, political scientists said, particularly if Kansas Democrats can link the dispute to bigger issues like immigration and voting rights.

“This is the kind of thing that can rouse the spirits of partisan opponents,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “If the Democrats are going to claw their way back, what they need is a narrative…in which Republicans are wanting to make government oppressive.”

U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver — the Missouri Democrat who founded the Civility Caucus — said the flap might provide lessons for Sullivan and everyone else.

“As adults, we would be wise to refrain from being too condemning, since we ourselves still have trouble being civil to one another,” he said in an email.

For her part, Sullivan says she won’t go away quietly.

“I’m hoping things will slow down after this week, but I don’t want to give up on the story,” she said. “I want to keep giving people the option to speak.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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