Tuned In

Hey, Twitter, the Governor Is Totally Gonna Tell the Principal on You

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Sullivan's profile avatar, as seen on her Twitter page.

Earlier this year, Rep. Anthony Weiner showed us how an elected official can make himself look like an idiot over tweets that he sends to the electorate. Now Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has demonstrated how an elected official can make himself look like an idiot over tweets that the electorate sends about him. Last week, Brownback got into a public feud with a high-school student over a rude tweet, and proved himself the less mature party.

Emma Sullivan, an 18-year-old high school student, was attending the Republican governor’s greeting to a Youth in Government program when she sent a tweet to her followers: “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” Sullivan did not actually say anything to Brownback directly, but one of his staffers, who monitors social-media for references to the governor–small-government conservatism in action!–noted the comment.

So Brownback’s office did what any mature adults would when wounded by a high-schooler’s comment: they tattled. The governor’s office notified the program, and word got to Sullivan’s principal, who scolded her and insisted that she apologize. You read that right: a state governor’s office lodged a complaint over someone being a h8r on the Internet. (Where is Mario Lopez when you need him!)

Sullivan’s tweet was crude and disrespectful—shockingly, coming from a high-school student—but it wasn’t disruptive, nor did it interrupt Brownback’s speech; she sent it to those friends who followed her on Twitter. (Sixty-five of them at the time, though after the publicity, as of this writing, she now has almost 10,000.) And it was in service of a political point—Sullivan told the Associated Press that she disagreed with Brownback’s decision to eliminate all funding for the state arts commission. In other words, the state governor’s office was using its power to try to reprimand a citizen for objecting to his politics in a way he found offensive.

To Sullivan’s credit, she has told reporters she’s not going to apologize, because any letter of apology would be insincere. Of course it would; the whole point of any punishment like that is to humiliate the miscreant by forcing her to write something that everyone knows she doesn’t believe. Instead, she offered to talk to the governor about his policies; a spokesperson for the governor refused, saying that mutual respectfulness was a prerequisite for a “constructive dialogue.”

What a delicate flower the governor of Kansas is! But it’s Gov. Brownback who needed to show respect here, to a democratic process that affords his constituents the right to disagree with him in public, even if it uses Bart Simpson’s vocabulary to do it. This afternoon–after a weekend of adverse publicity–Brownback did so, issuing his own apology:

My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms. I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future. I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum. Again, I apologize for our over-reaction.

Brownback still hasn’t met with Sullivan, and I suspect this won’t be the last such clash between a political office looking to protect its image and a citizenry able to talk back, at will and unfiltered. (If we set the precedent that kids should apologize for tweeting mean things about powerful people, imagine the principals of America being deluged by demands from Justin Bieber’s people.) It’s a good thing that this incident became news, that Sullivan stood her ground, and that Brownback was embarrassed enough to admit that he got schooled in democracy by an 18-year-old girl.

But before the bad p.r. required otherwise, his office would have been glad to accept the coerced apology from a student for tweeting her mind at a civic forum, and to paraphrase Bart Simpson, that both sucks and blows.