Tweet With Caution: The Government Is Watching You

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback's reaction to a teenage girl's tweet seems trivial, but it is representative of our ever more closely surveilled, pro-snitching society

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Kansas Governor Sam Brownback has been rightly ridiculed for informing on a teenager who had the nerve to ridicule him on Twitter. (All she needed to say after his office turned her in to school authorities for tweeting "he sucked" was "I rest my case.") But the spectacle of an adult male governor (or his staff) monitoring social media for disrespectful comments and whining about a teenage girl's tweet was as disturbing as it was laughable. Brownback has apologized for what he characterized as a staff overreaction, but, all things considered, this fracas over a high school girl's tweet was not anomalous. It exemplified several troubling, anti-libertarian trends.

1) Government officials nationwide engage in cyber-stalking; we are all under surveillance now. 


2) Thanks to the anti-bullying crusade, we're no longer presumed to enjoy a right to make fun of each other; so we should not be entirely surprised when government officials listen to teenagers chatter and turn them in for mocking their political leaders. Yes, our obsession with bullying is rooted partly in an effort to protect the presumptively weak from the strong, but authority figures other than Governor Brownback, notably high school principals, have been known to punish students who dare to make fun of them.  

3) Snitching is considered a civic duty. It began, understandably, with the post-9/11 "See something, say something" mantra, but these days we're expected to report much more than abandoned backpacks on subways. Students are expected or even required to report incidents of "bullying," which is often broadly defined to include any allegedly disrespectful or offensive word or gesture -- like tweeting "he sucked." The rest of us are exhorted to report whatever we consider "suspicious" activities, informing on people who photograph bridges or buildings, take notes in public, or view forbidden material. Delta airline passenger Grant Smith has been arraigned on child porn charges in Boston because, as the Boston Globe reports, a "sharp-eyed passenger in the seat behind Smith noticed him looking at some images on his laptop."

Hysteria about the effects of child porn has resulted in hysterically harsh sentences for child porn offenses, which are sometimes treated more harshly than child molestation. (Merely downloading child pornography can send you to prison for life.) So I don't expect to read many expressions of concern about citizen informants monitoring each others' computer screens when they appear to display child porn. The only presumed villain in this story is the man caught viewing allegedly illicit material, not the "sharp-eyed" snitch who caught him. But we should keep in mind the essential role of ubiquitous informants in totalitarian societies in which everyone's reading and viewing habits and political views and sex lives are everyone else's business.
 
We should remember America's sorry history of imprisoning people for political as well as sexual speech (a society that criminalizes one form of allegedly dangerous speech will criminalize others). During early and mid-20th century Red scares, "subversive advocacy" was a crime. Today, political speech is criminalized under the rubric of "material support" for terrorism. Americans should watch what they say, former Bush press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned us, 10 years ago. And don't forget, he might have added, others will be watching for you.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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