Did Governor Brownback Make the Right Decision?

Emma Sullivan, an 18 year old student from Shawnee Mission East High School, joined her class on a field trip to hear Governor Brownback speak in Topeka, Kansas on Monday, November 23. Little did anybody know that Sullivan’s presence on this field trip was going to garner national coverage. 

It turns out that Sullivan, who did not particularly agree with the governor’s views on things he was trying to pass, Tweeted the following to her 65 followers on Twitter:

“just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

This seemingly innocent Tweet from a typical teenager caused quite the uproar. First, the governor’s staff reported her Tweet to her school’s principal who demanded that she issue an apology for her statement. Secondly, Sullivan’s Twitter following has exploded to nearly 15,000 followers. And thirdly, Sullivan received a lot of requests for television appearances. Basically, this girl’s life changed dramatically from one Tweet.

Now that you have the background of the story, I can get to my main point. After thinking it over, the governor and his staff decided that it was not necessary for Sullivan to apologize to him because she was just exercising her freedom of speech. The following is a statement by the governor and his staff:

“District officials have reviewed recent events surrounding the reported tweet by Shawnee Mission East High School student Emma Sullivan.  The district acknowledges a student’s right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally protected.

“The district has not censored Miss Sullivan nor infringed upon her freedom of speech.  She is not required to write a letter of apology to the Governor.  Whether and to whom any apologies are issued will be left to the individuals involved.

“The issue has resulted in many teachable moments concerning the use of social media.  The district does not intend to take any further action on this matter.”

So here’s my take on the situation. I think that the governor and his staff made the correct decision by issuing this statement and not forcing Sullivan to apologize. When you think about PR, a big aspect of it is reputation management. Obviously when the governor and his staff saw that Tweet, they wanted to protect their reputation, so they got the principal involved. However, when they had some time to think things through, they came to their senses.

First of all, there are always going to be people who don’t agree with your policies. If you take the time to discipline and address each and every one of them, you will never be able to do your job. Secondly, Twitter is essentially a revelation of people’s inner thoughts (at least it is for some people). To censor or reprimand somebody for a Tweet is just wrong because it’s telling somebody that they should be punished for having the thoughts they have. Yes, the user has the option to not press send on their offensive Tweets, but some people are just the “no filter” type, and they should have the opportunity to be who they are. I believe that it’s the realness of people on Twitter that makes it as powerful as it is. When it comes to an athlete Tweeting something offensive and they get punished for it, I do agree with it in that situation because they are part of an organization and there are certain rules and policies that they need to follow. But in the case of a student, there are no policies against Tweeting, so there is nothing wrong with it.

What’s your take? Do you think the governor and his staff made the right decision?

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