High School Student Fights Back Against Gov. Sam Brownback’s Intimidation, Will Not Write Apology

Teenage Brownback Critic Emma Sullivan

Last Monday, Kansas high school student Emma Sullivan attended a speech by Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS), during which she published a tweet critical of the governor. In response, Brownback’s office reported Sullivan’s critical tweet to her high school’s administration, and the high school principal ordered her to write a letter of apology — despite the fact that this punishment is unconstitutional because Sullivan’s tweet is protected by the First Amendment.

Last night, Sullivan sent out another tweet — announcing that she will not obey her principal’s unconstitutional command to apologize to the thin-skinned governor:

Among other things, this incident highlights the incompetence of Brownback’s communications team. At the time of her first tweet, Sullivan had only a few dozen followers. Had the governor’s office simply ignored the tweet, it’s doubtful that more than a few people would have read it. Instead, they decided to intimidate the dissenting teenager by reporting her — and the incident blew up into a major national news story. As of this writing, Sullivan has more than 4,000 Twitter followers.

Team Brownback justifies its heavy-handed response by claiming that Sullivan’s original tweet — which said that Brownback “sucked” and ended with the hashtag “#heblowsalot” — wasn’t respectful.” Perhaps it wasn’t, but the First Amendment cares very little whether a persons’ speech is respectful or not. One of the Supreme Court’s seminal First Amendment cases held that the words “Fuck the Draft” are protected speech. And, while a public school student’s First Amendment rights are somewhat reduced, schools typically cannot discipline students for speaking out unless their speech is likely to disrupt the school’s learning environment.

Now that Sullivan has chosen to assert her First Amendment rights, the ball is in the school’s court. If they are smart, they will recognize that their attempt to punish Sullivan unambiguously violates the Constitution and save themselves from expensive potential litigation that they are exceedingly unlikely to win.