Ending a battle that could only have taken place in the brave new world of social media, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday apologized for an incident involving a teen who had maligned him on Twitter.
In making his mea culpa, Brownback went to the obvious place — Facebook — to post his statement. Staff members had been overzealous, he said, in their monitoring of social media’s electronic public square, which is where they found Emma Sullivan’s comment that the governor “sucked.”
“My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize,” Brownback posted. “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.”
Sullivan, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas, said she was glad that Brownback had apologized but noted that he wasn’t directly addressing her, just apologizing for his staff’s zeal.
“I will watch what I say,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview. “I mean what I say — and it is my right to say it — but I need to watch what I say.”
To some liberal elements of the blogosphere, the face-off between Sullivan, 18, and Brownback, 55, a Republican former U.S. senator and 2008 presidential aspirant, was a David-versus-Goliath showdown with a touch of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
Sullivan’s followers on Twitter increased from about five dozen to more than 11,000 in days, a rate of growth that would be the envy of any celebrity; she swamped Brownback, who has his nearly 3,300 followers. She also attracted a range of support, even offers of legal help, from those who saw the battle as one about free speech.
The incident began Nov. 21, when Sullivan attended a Youth in Government program at the state Capitol. At the event, she tweeted: “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”
In reality, she made no such comment to the governor. But staff members contacted the youth program, word eventually went downhill, and Sullivan was called to the principal’s office. There, the principal told her to send Brownback a letter of apology and even suggested talking points for the note she was to hand in by a Monday deadline, Sullivan said.
Sullivan made it clear that she had no intention of apologizing to the governor.
She acknowledged that she had many political differences with Brownback, saying she’s pro-choice on abortion, supports gay rights and backs arts institutions whose funds have shrunk. But politics wasn’t the goal of the tweet, she said.
“I wasn’t trying to accomplish anything,” Sullivan said. “I don’t feel like there was a victory. I’m just glad I didn’t get in trouble.”
By Monday morning, the Shawnee Mission School District had begun to back away from the issue. The district said in a statement that it had reviewed the events and decided to acknowledge that “a student’s right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally protected.”
“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 district said.
In a nod to the temper of the times, the district also gave the kerfuffle an educational twist. “The issue has resulted in many teachable moments concerning the use of social media,” the statement said. “The district does not intend to take any further action on this matter.”
Brownback also offered an educational spin. He praised educators “who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum.”
“Again, I apologize for our overreaction,” he said.