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First Amendment Takes Spotlight Over Teen’s Negative Tweet About Governor

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Free Speech Icon by EFF on Flickr

Free Speech Icon by EFF on Flickr

High school senior Emma Sullivan may not have intended to become a symbol for the freedom of speech, but she has tweeted her way into history.

The now-infamous message posted to Twitter was, “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person, #heblowsalot.” When a communications director for Kansas Governor Sam Brownback saw the tweet in a routine sweep for tweets with the governor’s name, Sullivan was ordered by school officials to apologize for what the communications director called a “disrespectful” message.

But then word leaked out in the press and Sullivan’s situation went viral; her Twitter follower count swelled from 60 to over 8,000, and the 18-year-old decided maybe apologizing wasn’t the way she wanted to handle the situation. Instead, she continued to champion her cause—where else? On Twitter, with the tweet: “I’ve decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong.”

In fact, Sullivan was the one who ended up getting an apology. Governor Brownback released a statement noting that the “[f]reedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” He also added that his “staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize.”

The school district also relented on its request for an apology, “acknowledg[ing] a student’s right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally protected.”

And once again we are reminded of that great quote from the 1969 Tinker case about students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Tweet on, kids, though remember defamation laws apply even on social media, so while expressing one’s opinion will fall under freedom of speech, presenting potentially harmful information as factual can lead to a lawsuit. So do tweet with care.

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<a href="" title="Who deserves an apology? Governor Brownback or Emma Sullivan?">Who deserves an apology? Governor Brownback or Emma Sullivan?</a>
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December 1st, 2011 at 10:49 am