There won’t be a beer summit between Emma Sullivan and Kansas City Governor Sam Brownback. And it’s not because Sullivan is only 18 and can’t legally enjoy a frothy mug. It’s because Brownback won’t talk with her.
Last night, NPR reported that the 18-year-old tweeted a disparaging comment about the Governor, "Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person (hash)heblowsalot.” The reality, NPR noted, is that Sullivan didn’t actually make mean comments to Brownback in person. Her tweet, on the other hand, said enough.
Sullivan and her peers were listening to the Governor speak as part of their participation in the Youth in Government program at Sullivan’s high school. Sullivan’s principal urged her to write a letter of apology to Brownback, but she refuses. While I agree with Sullivan’s mother, she could have chosen better words, I’ve decided that she shouldn’t have to apologize. After all, a large portion of our society would spend days writing letters if every governor were to receive an apology for disparaging comments made about him or her.
Sullivan’s situation has enlightened me to how useful social networking and blogging can be as tools of protest, particularly for pre-higher ed. students. After spending a long week writing five-paragraph essays and artistically filling in the bubbles of practice standardized tests, I can’t blame students for expressing their points of view online. Sullivan, for example, is upset with Brownback for cutting arts funding. Without Twitter, we might not have heard this student’s voice, because let’s remember, when we cut funding, especially for art and education programs, we never really consider who it’s affecting the most: KIDS.
NPR noted that Sullivan thinks her tweet opens up dialogue about free speech in social media. Let’s consider who (ab)uses free speech regularly: Rick Perry re-emphasized the GOP’s search for President Obama’s birth certificate in a TV interview, referring to it as political play; or on July 15th, Sarah Palin tweeted, “Obama lies, economy dies. He says 'default's catastrophic' then opposes deal to avert it. Nonsense” (sounds disparaging to me); or, when Terry Jones burned the Koran, despite political outcry, no one made him apologize to Muslims. These remarks lead to or led to greater ramifications than Sullivan’s tweet.
Let’s face it, Sullivan is exercising her rights, and she’s speaking on behalf of her high school peers, who have little voice in our society.
What Sullivan said could have been worse. It could have been better. Regardless of the medium, it’s worth opening a dialogue about free speech. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but if we expect teenagers to articulately state their opinions about politics or public policy, we better start leading by example and we better stop asking them to apologize.