Are We Losing the “Civil” War?

Recently, there has been a lot of press attention generated by a tweet sent by a Kansas high school teen regarding Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. While on a tour of the capitol, 17-year old Emma Sullivan tweeted the following:

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

In what was probably an overreaction, when Governor Brownback’s staff saw the tweet on Twitter, they contacted the organizers of the event who in turn contacted Sullivan’s school principal. Her principal scolded her and suggested she write a letter of apology, something she initially considered doing. Then the story hit the media, and suddenly, a wave of support came out for Sullivan. She decided not to write an apology. Her Twitter followers jumped from a little over 60 to over 3000 in a short period of time. In my opinion, that’s when the issue got a little twisted.

Defenders of the First Amendment were suddenly coming to Emma’s rescue, stating that she was being attacked by the Governor’s office and her principal. The issue suddenly became about the First Amendment, not about whether or not the behavior was appropriate. If she had shouted those words out while Governor Brownback was talking, would we view it differently? Would people all over the country be so quick to line up with her and defend her right to say anything she wants without any consequences? To me, that’s where so many have gone off course; they equate freedom of speech with freedom to say anything without consequence.

As a high school principal, I deal with issues similar to this every day. Students will often claim that they have freedom of speech, so it’s okay for them to say whatever they want. I often give them the example of what would happen if I cussed at my Superintendent, or addressed the school board as a bunch of idiots (I don’t think that by the way). I wouldn’t be arrested (I have freedom of speech), but I would have consequences. Somewhere as a society, we are blurring the lines and losing that perspective. It’s created a situation where we don’t feel we have to be civil with each other, because it’s my “right” to say whatever I want.

As my wife and I discussed this issue at breakfast, we pondered the ironic part of this in today’s society. If Sullivan had said something similar to this to a classmate, she might be accused of bullying, and possibly be facing consequences. If the student she said it to had hurt feelings, and did something to hurt themself, the public outcry would be directed toward her, not in support of her. The arguments of freedom of speech would not have been so loud and fervent.

A few things cross my mind as I summarize this issue in my brain. First, if you want to be in politics, thick skin is pretty necessary, and I think in retrospect, Governor Brownback knows that. He has issued an apology to Sullivan, and I’m guessing his office will be less fervent about monitoring social media, especially comments made my teenagers. Second, I’m troubled by this bastardized notion that so many have of freedom of speech. I would be suprised if being able to call names or make any statement, no matter how uncivil, was what the forefathers had in mind. They were pushing for the right to be able to disagree without being thrown in jail or worse. Finally, what would it have hurt for Sullivan to apologize? Maybe not for the statement so much, but for being disrespectful. People can have differing viewpoints and politics, but that doesn’t mean it has to sound like some reality show where every 4th word is bleeped out. Speech is protected, not disrespect. Free speech doesn’t have to be uncivil speech.

2 thoughts on “Are We Losing the “Civil” War?

  1. Actually, the political language during the country’s founding was much worse than what Ms. Sullivan used. There may have been a more polite time in our history, but that was definitely not it.

    I find it very interesting that this particular example has been grabbed by the media and in turn by the Twitterverse. This isn’t really a freedom of speech issue and I don’t think this is even a moral issue. I am guessing the attention stems from the medium Ms. Sullivan used. There is a lot of fear among the tech community about censorship of the internet so it is no surprise that they pushed the first amendment side. There is a lot of fear by many non tech literate people that fear the openness of the internet which probably (just a guess) pushed the focus to “those darn kids are so rude!”. The reaction by both sides seem overblown to me.

    It is obvious that Mr. Brownback needed to apologize politically, and it is just as obvious that Ms. Sullivan politically could not apologize. Kind of a weird world we live.

    • Great points- again, I’m in agreement, this really wasn’t a First Amendment issue, but it has been twisted to be that. Deep breaths, common sense, respect, those are the things that should prevail. Sadly, those were not the main features of this issue.

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