Emma Sullivan, a high school senior, got caught up in the news cycle, for posting a tweet about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. Now her school is demanding that she write an apology letter for a pretty innocuous comment- ““Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot”
While Ms. Sullivan did nothing disruptive while in the Governor’s presence other than send this tweet, she is being accused of being disrespectful in a rather ad hoc ergo propter hoc way. (after this, therefore because of this). Ms. Sullivan is currently choosing not to apologize, and I strongly support her free speech rights, especially since she is at the age when she can begin to vote and take place in public discourse as an adult.
The really interesting question this whole incident is the free speech versus regulated speech argument, hitting at the heart of an age-old debate about whether free speech rights apply in the school house or at school-related functions. While the Supreme Court has stated many times that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, the school does have leeway to balance free speech with educational objectives. This means, for example, that schools can reasonably restrict kids from wearing clothing with provocative language that may be disruptive to learning. The most recent school speech case, Morse v. Frederick may apply here. In that case, Students had displayed a sign saying “Bong hits 4 Jesus” in front of their school when the Olympic Torch Relay was passing by. The sign was confiscated by the principal and the student responsible for it was suspended. The case wound up in the Supreme Court, where, in a 5 to 4 decision, the action of the principal was upheld as a reasonable enforcement of the school’s policy not to encourage illegal drug use, and that these policies also included students who were on field trips or other approved social events.
While Ms. Sullivan was clearly on a school sponsored event, her speech was not disruptive at the time, and did not inherently violate school policy other than using her cell phone during school hours. But it is the content of her message, not the method by which it was communicated, that is being punished, making it much more likely that Ms. Sullivan will prevail if this matter ever goes to Court.
What I think is most important about this, however, is the need we all have to begin to teach kids at every age (and adults as well) what it means to be a good digital citizen. We are doing virtually nothing (in the aggregate) to teach our kids about how to use new communication channels appropriately, and that digital communication like tweets can have a bigger impact on their lives than they realize. For Ms. Sullivan, who is likely applying to colleges, will this event become something that makes her a more attractive candidate or less? Will her handling of this issue lead to applause or a reputation of being a troublemaker? the jury is out, but one thing is for sure- one snarky tweet may change this young girl’s life whether she’s ready for it or not. The lack of guidance provided in the vast majority of school districts to students on digital citizenship issues at any level of schooling will likely lead to more of these issues coming to the fore rather than less.
If we learn anything from Ms. Sullivan’s incident with her school and Gov. Brownback, I hope it’s that we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the power of social media and the effect it has on people. We need to begin to prepare our kids to live in a world we ourselves are still adjusting to- where your fifteen minutes of fame or infamy may come at any time, for almost any reason.