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Viewpoint 11/30: Free speech on Twitter

While on a school trip to Topeka, Kan., where the governor of the state was giving a speech, Shawnee Mission East High School student Emma Sullivan did what many students with an interest in politics and Twitter would have done: She tweeted her opinion on Gov. Sam Brownback. She tweeted that she had made mean comments toward Brownback in person and told him that he sucked.

After she posted the tweet, an overzealous member of Brownback’s staff saw it and reported it to her school. The staff member’s defense was that, while she would’ve been allowed to criticize the governor’s policies, she could not be allowed to insult him personally. Her principal then told her that she had to write a letter of apology to Brownback or face disciplinary action at her school. She wrote the letter to avoid being punished, but bravely maintains that she does not regret exercising her right to free speech.

Nor should she regret exercising her right to free speech. In recent weeks, Sullivan has had to stay home from school after being barraged with hate mail and bullying by other students. Some students have even organized a rally in support of the school’s principal and against Sullivan. And one fellow Twitter user sent her hateful tweets and called her a “whore” several times.

While Brownback apologized for the incident, one has to wonder if he would have bothered if so much negative attention to his staff’s actions hadn’t come out. Brownback should not surround himself with a staff that would sort through Twitter feeds to make sure no one was making negative comments about the governor. Had Sullivan been making herself out to be a representative for her school, then of course she should be disciplined. But the fact remains that she was not acting as a representative for her school or the other students. She was making a personal comment on her own personal Twitter feed outside of the school forum. Her school had absolutely no right to force her to apologize to Brownback, and the governor’s staff had no right to report her tweet to the school.

We have to be very careful about how we react when someone says something on their personal Twitter feed or Facebook. We understand that, because these are semi-public forums, there might be a concern about writing libelous or embarrassing comments regarding any individual person or institution. However, as a public figure, Brownback puts himself out there for criticism and, furthermore, nothing that Sullivan said was libel.

Sullivan has every right to criticize or even insult politicians she does not like, not just their policies. Certainly a lot of politicians on both the left and the right regularly insult each other using personal attacks. If they can get away with it, then Sullivan certainly should. Those who value free speech should rally behind Sullivan and defend her from the onslaught of persecution coming from her fellow students, her school and even her state government.

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