An Apology to Dr. Karl Krawitz: You Didn't 'Demand' an Apology

By Garrett Epps

Emma Sullivan's principal didn't force her to apologize for insulting Kansas governor Sam Brownback

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AP Images

I owe an apology to principal Karl Krawitz; it turns out he suggested but did not demand an apology letter from Emma Sullivan to Gov. Sam Brownback.  Emma Sullivan should not have allowed that impression to remain there--the media had her account of events but not his, as he chose not to comment. We know she knows how to tweet, and a tweet setting the record straight would have been the right thing to do.

Having been bullied--and threatened--myself when I was in high school, I am probably too ready to believe the worst about principals. I'd like to think I would have told the bully from the Governor's office that it was up to Emma and not me; I'd like to think I wouldn't have gotten involved.  But Krawitz was in a tough situation. The truth is that I wouldn't ever have found myself in such a situation, mostly because I'd never be a principal.

There is still plenty of shame in this for Brownback and his staff.  What are these people doing monitoring kids' tweets? Who do they think they are? 

I am struck from reading reactions to this story at how many people believe profoundly that Emma Sullivan was not protected by the First Amendment because she didn't really tell the governor to his face that #heblowsalot.  There's a common impression about that the First Amendment protects only the literally true statement.  That's certainly not the law right now. A Ninth Circuit case, United States v. Alvarez, is currently waiting for possible Supreme Court review. That case tests a statute, the Stolen Valor Act, that makes it a federal crime to tell others that you have won certain medals awarded for valor. The statute doesn't require intent to defraud--that is, to get some kind of material advantage by lying--and so the issue is whether the government can punish lies just because it doesn't like people lying about certain things.  I certainly hope not, not because I plan to tell women in bars of my non-existent decorations but because I think if we can be dragged in front of a jury and forced to prove that everything we say is true, all of us are going to be in a world of hurt.

The Emma Sullivan story illustrates the peril there.  Was her tweet "false"? I frankly doubt that many of her 65 followers really thought she had actually wagged her finger in Sam Brownback's face; as I read it, the statement was hyperbole, a way of expressing ridicule of the power disparity between a high-school student and a governor.  It's the equivalent of the neighbor who comes home from Washington, D.C., and tells friends that he told that good-for-nothing Obama, or Congress, or whoever, to straighten up and fly right.  We'd be outraged if the FBI showed up at his door the next day.

If Emma had actually confronted the governor at a school event disrespectfully, the First Amendment aspects of the story would have been quite different, and the school might have had a right to discipline her for bad behavior.  The best thing would have been to ask him directly but politely why he had cut arts funding, and directly but politely register her disagreement.  If she faced official displeasure for that act of citizenship, that again would have been quite different, and I hope the school would have supported her. 

The other thing that many commenters express is an unshakeable belief that I and others would have thought nothing of it if the public official shaking down a principal and a teenager had been a Democrat or a liberal.  That one, I can assure you, isn't true.  Of course I can't prove that, which illustrates the basic emptiness of the argument.  It is a form of what rhetoricians called the argumentam ad hominem (destructive).  If the facts are uncomfortable, the response is to negate critical comment on them by saying I can see into your heart and I know that if the identities were different you'd have a different response, because I know you are secretly a bad person, and thus I have proved that your criticisms are invalid.

My last thought is that I still stand firmly against government officials demanding that kids be demure and respectful when they talk to their friends about powerful people--or even, in most circumstances, to them. A little sass does politicians good, and I'd think more of Brownback if he were surrounded by the kind of people who would read Emma's silly tweet and laugh. I've known politicians--liberal and conservative--who could do that, and I liked them all for it.

That said, Dr. Krawitz, I am sorry I got the facts wrong about you.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/an-apology-to-dr-karl-krawitz-you-didnt-demand-an-apology/249436/