Emma Sullivan and the Big Brownback Backdown

One student wins a right to say silly things about a powerful man. Couldn't we extend this liberty to all our children?


The Emma Sullivan story has for the moment reached a happy place: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Monday apologized to the teenager his staff had tried to bully into an apology of her own, which she refused.

This sorry episode presents us yet again with the spectacle of an American child forced to grow up overnight because adults around her insist on acting like children.

Emma is from Prairie Village, Kansas, and a senior at Shawnie Mission East High School. As part of a Youth in Government program, Emma traveled to Topeka, where she had to listen to a speech by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a right-wing ideologue who, Kansans like to joke, is transforming their state into "Brownbackistan." What Emma knew about Brownback was that he had vetoed funding for the arts, leaving Kansas as the sole state without a state arts program. Emma Sullivan tweeted the following subversive thought: "Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot."  

But in the holy commonwealth of Kansas, no sparrow shall fall without the notice of state-paid social-media watchdogs. Brownback's staff sniffed out this verbal terrorism, and called her principal, who cravenly called her in and tried to bully her into writing an apology. Emma refused, and her story swept the Web like a fire off the Kansas prairie. Official humorlessness and hypocrisy had transformed an American teenager (an earlier tweet: "Dear edward and jacob, this is the best night of my life. I want u. Love, ur future wife #breakingdawn") into a global symbol of protest.

In response, the Governor brownbacked down: "My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms."

Both of Emma's tweets are silly. (Among other things, Emma actually hadn't told the Governor he sucked, alas.) But so what? Teen-agers are supposed to be silly. It is adults who should be mature. Surrounded by full-grown ninnyhammers, Emma has had to grow up overnight. Her latest tweet is: "I've decided not to write the letter but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion & to be heard! #goingstrong."          

She's come a long way from Breaking Dawn.

Brownback, meanwhile, has become a figure of fun; I suspect the Emma Sullivan debacle will appear in his obituaries years hence. But there are Emma Sullivans all over the country --young people who must make the transition from swooning over vamps to deciding public issues. And far too many of them are squashed by Brownbackian adults.

With too few exceptions, the officious principals and humorless bureaucrats of the world regard students as blobs with no rights, whose job it is to shut up and follow orders. Far too many people are willing to go along with this, because much of what teenagers have to say --even when they are being serious -- is closer to "#heblowsalot" than to "#goingstrong." 

But if society doesn't protect their right to silly speech, how many of them will ever have anything serious to say? 

The law of student speech was set in 1969 by a case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that case, students were suspended from school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The Court memorably wrote that neither "students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate"and that school officials could not punish speech without showing the likelihood of "substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities."

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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