On November 21, eighteen-year-old Emma Sullivan was on a Kansas Youth in Government field trip to the Kansas capitol. While there, she used her phone to post a message to Twitter about Governor Sam Brownback (R-KS): “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”
Needless to say, Sullivan’s ‘tweet’ doesn’t exactly rise to the kind of political discourse I would like to see in our country. First off, it’s a lie—Sullivan did not actually speak to Governor Brownback at the event. Second off, expressing disagreement with a politician by saying he ‘sucks’ and ‘blows a lot’ is not much of a contribution to civil debate. But whatever I might think of Sullivan’s ‘tweet,’ there is no doubt that she has a fundamental First Amendment right to post it.
Well, Brownback’s office didn’t like it and notified Sullivan’s principal, and then Sullivan’s principal demanded that Sullivan apologize in-writing to the governor. Sound at all familiar? Since then, both Brownback’s office and Sullivan’s school district have distanced themselves from the situation. Brownback blames an over-zealous staffer for contacting the school, and the Shawnee Mission School District now says that Sullivan is not required to write an apology. Good.
Should Sullivan apologize? Probably. But her school has no authority to require it, and Brownback has no right to request it. The whole point of the First Amendment’s free speech clause is to protect political speech, no matter how offensive or absurd it might be. Sullivan posted the ‘tweet’ from her own phone to her own privately-obtained Twitter account, and as-such it’s none of her school’s darn business. If it were posted on school equipment or in a school publication, that would be different. Or if she were a minor, then the school would have some limited authority as her acting legal guardian. But Sullivan is eighteen, and made her own statement from her own equipment. Her school has no authority in this matter whatsoever.
Time and time again (and again, and again, and again, and again, and again) I find myself having to remind our public educators that they are government employees, and are thus bound by the constitutional limitations on government. Even if this weren’t the case (as in private schools), there is educational value in permitting students the broadest possible civil liberties in their schools. You cannot teach students about how to operate in a free society from an academic environment that more closely resembles totalitarianism—telling students what to say, what to think, what medicines to take, when to take them, when to urinate, when to inquire, and when accept blindly. One cannot learn about how to responsibly exercise freedom in an environment where they have none.