Kansas School Violates Student’s Rights


Here’s an absolutely clear cut case of a school overstepping the First Amendment, with the help of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who was apparently upset when a student tweeted something mean about him when he spoke to a group of high schoolers from around the state.

A Kansas teenager is in trouble after mocking Gov. Sam Brownback during a mock legislative assembly for high school students.

Emma Sullivan, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, was in Topeka on Monday as part of Kansas Youth in Government, a program for students interested in politics and government.

During the session, in which Brownback addressed the group, Sullivan posted on her personal Twitter page:

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

On Tuesday, Sullivan was called to her principal’s office and told that the tweet had been flagged by someone on Brownback’s staff and reported to organizers of the Youth in Government program.

And rather than defending the student’s right to criticize Brownback, the principal is forcing her to write letters of apology:

The principal “laid into me about how this was unacceptable and an embarrassment,” Sullivan said. “He said I had created this huge controversy and everyone was up in arms about it … and now he had to do damage control.

“I’m mainly shocked that they would even see that tweet and be concerned about me,” she said. “I just honestly feel they’re making a lot bigger deal out of it than it actually was.”

Sullivan said the principal ordered her to write letters of apology to Brownback, the school’s Youth in Government sponsor, the district’s social studies coordinator and others.

The principal has no such authority under the constitution. The student says she intends to write the letters but she shouldn’t do so. She should call the ACLU and then tell the principal to read the First Amendment.

Update: Looks like she decided to do just that.

A Kansas teenager who wrote a disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback said Sunday that she is rejecting her high school principal’s demand for a written apology.

Emma Sullivan, 18, of the Kansas City suburb of Fairway, said she isn’t sorry and doesn’t think such a letter would be sincere…

Sullivan has received emails from attorneys but is waiting to see what happens when she refuses to hand in a letter. Krawitz, her principal, told The Kansas City Star previously that the situation is a “private issue, not a public matter” but didn’t return a phone message from The Associated Press at his home Sunday.

Um. No. It’s a very public matter. You are an agent of the government and your actions toward a student are governed by the constitution. And if your attorneys aren’t telling you to retract your demand for an apology letter, you’re gonna lose badly in court.

Update #2: Brownback now says his staff overreacted and has apologized to the student. And the school has also backed down and will not punish her for it. A victory for sanity and free speech.

Comments

  1. says

    I wrote about this yesterday.

    Watching the #heblowsalot references on Twitter yesterday and today is pretty interesting. I can’t help but think that this is going to be a phrase attached to Brownback’s name in the way that “Santorum” was re-defined. And it couldn’t happen to a more appropriate target….not that “Brownback” isn’t suggestive enough on its own.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    A victory for sanity and free speech.

    Also a victory for the power of the Streisand effect.

  3. arakasi says

    Dear Gov. Brownback

    I am very sincerely sorry that you suck. I truly hope that this state of affairs will no longer continue.

    Respectfully yours,

    Emma Sullivan

  4. Dennis N says

    As I often do, I search around comments sections, to see how different sides are reacting. There is a large contingent of people who are conceding that Brownback is a fool, but want to focus the discussion on the teen being irresponsible and a poor student for tweeting while in class, as well as criticizing her word choices. To me, this is a last refuge of scoundrels looking to clear up the cognitive dissonance they’re feeling when one of their own crosses the line so far that they cannot openly defend him, but feel the need to fight against any criticism. It’s an attempt to hijack the substance of the issue, which is bullying by a government official.

  5. jacobfromlost says

    I’ve had experience with principals acting as if they are in charge of all reality, worrying more about “controversy” than asserting sane leadership, and praising any shallow effort to get a positive news story about the school circulated (no matter how very shallow). It’s really too bad that so many principals in the US are failed teachers who, like in many professions, fail upwards into management positions.

    When I was teaching, my principal would stand in the hall, drink coffee, and talk for an hour–to assistant principals who were also standing around drinking coffee and trying to impress him–just before and just after class started. Usually about the weather, sports, etc. I always resented that, as I never felt like I had time to BREATHE much less stand around as a “presence” for everyone to feel and shoot the breeze. I worked through 95% of every 1/2 lunch I ever had–for nearly 10 years– just to stay on top of everything, and ate protein bars randomly throughout the day.

  6. says

    As I often do, I search around comments sections, to see how different sides are reacting. There is a large contingent of people who are conceding that Brownback is a fool, but want to focus the discussion on the teen being irresponsible and a poor student for tweeting while in class, as well as criticizing her word choices. To me, this is a last refuge of scoundrels looking to clear up the cognitive dissonance they’re feeling when one of their own crosses the line so far that they cannot openly defend him, but feel the need to fight against any criticism. It’s an attempt to hijack the substance of the issue, which is bullying by a government official.

    I grant that there’s some room for very mild criticism about a student tweeting in class, but, you know, government repression of criticism! Priorities, people!

  7. says

    Dennis N,

    It seems to me that whenever it’s a matter of a student standing up for his or her rights in the face of administrators and people even higher up, the first concern for a lot of people is whether the student is being respectful in doing so. If not, screw the student. Deference to authority should be the first priority of all youngsters, otherwise society goes to hell.

  8. Michael Heath says

    From the linked article:

    The Shawnee Mission School District said Monday it was no long seeking a letter from Sullivan.

    “Whether and to whom any apologies are issued will be left to the individuals involved,” the statement said. “The issue has resulted in many teachable moments concerning the use of social media. The district does not intend to take any further action on this matter.”

    Another non-apology; I continue to find it particularly repugnant when the violation is done by a leader of the very government institution we’ve delegated educate people on their constitutionally protected rights.

    A credible school board working in the interests of students would at least publically discipline the bums involved in the reaction, including this response quoted here. I have a hunch there are few credible school boards in the state of Kansas.

  9. anandine says

    A victory for sanity and free speech.

    No, a victory for fear of ridicule in the press and in the courts.

  10. Aquaria says

    This principal needs to be fired for colluding with Brownbag to force this VOTER (she’s 18, after all!) to kowtow to any elected official’s widdle fee-fees.

    The gall is just astounding.

  11. Phillip IV says

    PWned by a high schooler. Yeah, it’s pretty sad – Sam Brownback doesn’t actually aspire to anything higher than being utterly despicable, but even at that he pathetically fails. If you don’t meet the standards for a GOP office holder in 2011, you should really consider applying for reassignment to a different species.

  12. Aquaria says

    There is a large contingent of people who are conceding that Brownback is a fool, but want to focus the discussion on the teen being irresponsible and a poor student for tweeting while in class, as well as criticizing her word choices.

    What–are they just asking people like me to call the guy even worse?

    I mean, if they don’t have the guts to call him a sniveling scumbag, then I’ll be happy to oblige.

  13. barbarienne says

    anandine@9: Hey, mockery is a powerful weapon, according to Twain:

    “Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution–these can lift at a colossal humbug,–push it a little– crowd it a little–weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”

    When the thugs and bullies grow a sense of humor, then things might get interesting. Fortunately, possessing a sense of humor is like receiving a vaccine against thuggishness. Bullies–particularly politician-bullies–are people who take themselves too seriously.

  14. Pieter B says

    There is a large contingent of people who are conceding that Brownback is a fool, but want to focus the discussion on the teen being irresponsible and a poor student for tweeting while in class.

    It was not a class. It was a field trip to the state capital, and Brownback was bloviating to the captive audience as politicians are wont to do when groups of high school students are shepherded through the Hallowed Halls Of Government.

  15. jeevmon says

    @ anandine – J.K. Rowling was quite insightful when she made Riddikulus the counter-charm to get rid of the boggarts that thrive on creating fear.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    Two cheers for Emma Sullivan!

    (Woulda been three – more! – if she actually had called out the dumbass governor of Kansas to his face, instead of only claiming she had.)

  17. Sastra says

    Grethchen #7 wrote:

    It seems to me that whenever it’s a matter of a student standing up for his or her rights in the face of administrators and people even higher up, the first concern for a lot of people is whether the student is being respectful in doing so. If not, screw the student.

    I’ve seen that, too. It’s a sort of tone-trolling, a way to shift focus from an issue to an individual.

    My first thought on reading this story was that it was another example of the too-common belief that the real purpose of education is not academic, but social. “It’s better to be nice than right” — or smart or educated or skilled or knowledgeable. Principals and teachers thus stand in a kind of maternal version of loco parentis: play nice; use your manners, show respect. Everything you really need to know you learn in Kindergarten. If the schools manage to turn out polite and considerate citizens, then nobody will care about the book larnin’ or understanding of governmental principles.

  18. eric says

    Seems to me a good response by the students would be to discuss the idiocy of the principal’s demand for an apology on twitter (but not in class). Making sure to include the hashtag #heblowsalot, of course.

  19. says

    I love it! The right-wing authoritarian demands an apology, the teenage girl refuses, and the authoritarian ends up apologizing instead. Liberals with backbone, FUCK YEAH!!

    I really hope the Democrats get in touch with this kid, and soon. She’ll make a great candidate for Congress, when she’s old enough.

  20. says

    From the Topeka Capital-Journal’s coverage:

    Emma Sullivan, 18, thumbed from the back of the crowd, “Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” She actually made no such comment and described the tweet as “joking around.”

    But she soon learned that Brownback’s office monitors social media for postings containing the governor’s name. Brownback’s director of communication wasn’t amused.

    “That wasn’t respectful,” responded Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “In order to really have a constructive dialogue, there has to be mutual respect.”

    The tweet was passed along to the Youth in Government program. The resulting scolding she received at school lasted nearly an hour. She said she was told the “not so nice” comments had embarrassed her school and the district and that “damage control” with the governor’s office was the next step.

    I don’t know how Sherriene Jones-Sontag “responded.” That sounds as if she tweeted back at Sullivan, but she doesn’t appear to have a Twitter account and no such message about respect was made using Brownback’s account. Plenty of mention is being made of both of them in other people’s tweets, though.

    If she thought what Sullivan said was disrespectful, though, I can only imagine what she’s thinking reading the tweets going on now.

  21. says

    “Brownback now says his staff overreacted and has apologized to the student. And the school has also backed down and will not punish her for it. A victory for sanity and free speech.’

    First off, the principal should be charged with assault for verbally lambasting this young lady. Whether the charge sticks or not? meh, he just deserved to be made to look like the asshole he is.

    Next, Emma needs to file a suit so that the attorneys for the plaintiff can get ALL the e-mails between the prinicipal and any other school officials and those between the school and the Brownback admin. I’m thinkin’ big fish.

  22. says

    It amazes me how quickly one can forget the freedoms we have to say what we want. It’s as if the First Amendment is counter-intuitive. Indeed, it probably is, which is why we actually need to have it enshrined in law. Without it, the natural human tendency is to quickly gag those with whom we don’t agree.

    Constant vigilance is not just a slogan.

  23. d cwilson says

    There is a large contingent of people who are conceding that Brownback is a fool, but want to focus the discussion on the teen being irresponsible and a poor student for tweeting while in class, as well as criticizing her word choices.

    Of course they do.

  24. says

    My first thought on reading this story was that it was another example of the too-common belief that the real purpose of education is not academic, but social. “It’s better to be nice than right” — or smart or educated or skilled or knowledgeable. Principals and teachers thus stand in a kind of maternal version of loco parentis: play nice; use your manners, show respect. Everything you really need to know you learn in Kindergarten. If the schools manage to turn out polite and considerate citizens, then nobody will care about the book larnin’ or understanding of governmental principles.

    I’m pretty sick of that mentality, overall. I tend to see parts of the self-esteem movement in it, where there are no wrong answers as long as we make kids feel good about themselves. Conflict and competition are always bad, the complainer is always wrong, yadda, yadda.

    It gets doubly annoying when I encounter some wingnut fundies who try to play PC Police, either by demanding respect and reverence for their religion, or mocking me for going against the tone troll leaders they pretend I follow.

  25. says

    But she soon learned that Brownback’s office monitors social media for postings containing the governor’s name.

    So there’s someone on Brownback’s payroll who does nothing but sound alarms whenever someone says something bad about Brownback? That’s the most infantile, pathetic, small-minded use of surveillance-state technology I’ve yet heard of. I’m sure whoever has that job has simply been swamped by the sleer volume of such comments by now. Either that, or their bosses got tired of hearing them sqwawk every .01 seconds, and put them out of their misery.

    It also says a lot about what kind of president Brownback would be.

  26. abb3w says

    @17, Sastra:

    Principals and teachers thus stand in a kind of maternal version of loco parentis: play nice; use your manners, show respect.

    Hm. It occurs to me to wonder how much of the pressure was due to the student being female; my impression is that the sociology shows conformity pressures are stronger on girls than boys.

    Not that Brownback would be happy with a high school boy noting how #heblowsalot….

  27. Trebuchet says

    Meanwhile, at Pharygula where this was reported yesterday, the discussion from the second reply on was almost entirely about whether “blows” and “sucks” were homophobic. I’m about ready to stop reading comments over there.

  28. Crudely Wrott says

    I’d like to see Governor Brownback and North Carolina’s Sheriff Brown matched together in a pout-off.

    Winner to receive a crying towel with the Ten Commandments embroidered in fool’s gold.

  29. John Hinkle says

    Gretchen@7:

    It seems to me that whenever it’s a matter of a student standing up for his or her rights in the face of administrators and people even higher up, the first concern for a lot of people is whether the student is being respectful in doing so. If not, screw the student. Deference to authority should be the first priority of all youngsters, otherwise society goes to hell.

    I think if the student started with “With all due respect…”, that should do it.

    Raging Bee@25:

    So there’s someone on Brownback’s payroll who does nothing but sound alarms whenever someone says something bad about Brownback? That’s the most infantile, pathetic, small-minded use of surveillance-state technology I’ve yet heard of.

    In my company – and I’m assuming most companies concerned about their public image – we have a full time person(s?) who does nothing but troll online news/opinion about the company and create PR responses. It’s SOP.

  30. says

    John Hinkle:

    “In my company – and I’m assuming most companies concerned about their public image – we have a full time person(s?) who does nothing but troll online news/opinion about the company and create PR responses. It’s SOP.”

    Tis true. But, then again, most companies don’t call up other companines and get all pouty until that company makes the complainant change their mind.

  31. says

    According to various stuff I’m seeing on Twitter, the following is happening:

    1. The principal, Karl Krawitz, has gotten some death threats and has sought police protection.

    2. Students are reacting to this by blaming Emma Sullivan. They’re bullying her, calling her an attention whore and saying she should be expelled from school.

    3. Krawitz may be preparing to resign.

    4. Students at the Shawnee Mission East are holding a demonstration outside the school in support of Krawitz.

  32. Aquaria says

    Meanwhile, at Pharygula where this was reported yesterday, the discussion from the second reply on was almost entirely about whether “blows” and “sucks” were homophobic. I’m about ready to stop reading comments over there.

    Almost entirely isn’t entirely. Plenty of people were saying more. It’s not their fault that you ignored it.

  33. Aquaria says

    1. The principal, Karl Krawitz, has gotten some death threats and has sought police protection.

    Uh huh. Well, we’ll have to take his word on that, but my bet is on a coward wanting a deflection from what an unAmerican scumbag he’s been. Or one who’s taking being called that and seeing a threat in it, rather than looking at himself.

    2. Students are reacting to this by blaming Emma Sullivan. They’re bullying her, calling her an attention whore and saying she should be expelled from school.

    What good little Germans for the future

    3. Krawitz may be preparing to resign.

    And well he should, for being too much of a boot-licking fool to understand the First Amendment.

    4. Students at the Shawnee Mission East are holding a demonstration outside the school in support of Krawitz.

    Definitely good little Germans.

  34. says

    Aquaria, if the amount of thought that goes into constructing a comment were tabulated in dollars, I think your average could barely buy lunch at Taco Bell.

  35. Freeman says

    if the amount of thought that goes into constructing a comment were tabulated in dollars,I think your average could barely buy lunch at Taco Bell.

    I believe the standard tabulation is 2 cents. How many Taco Bell lunches do you suppose your delicious comments are worth?

    On-topic: I can confirm the student demonstrations in support of the principal. Just saw it on the Kansas City evening news. Their message was that they would prefer not to be associated with the tone and language of the tweet that has brought so much attention to their school, and they don’t think the principal should have to resign.

  36. tomh says

    John Hinckle wrote:

    In my company – and I’m assuming most companies concerned about their public image – we have a full time person(s?) who does nothing but troll online news/opinion about the company and create PR responses. It’s SOP.

    I assume your company isn’t spending taxpayer dollars to conduct their espionage. Brownback should be held accountable for wasting public money on this – he’s simply paranoid and fearful for his image. Like a scared kid.

  37. dan4 says

    “…tell the principal to read the First Amendment.”

    Nice try, Mr. Brayton, but the First Amendment only prevents the government from fining and/or jailing a person for their speech. Last time I checked, a simple letter of apology doesn’t fall under either category.

  38. tomh says

    dan4 wrote:

    the First Amendment only prevents the government from fining and/or jailing a person for their speech.

    What an odd thing to say. The First Amendment says nothing about fining or jailing, it merely says there shall be no law “abridging the freedom of speech.” This is interpreted to mean that no government agent shall abridge the freedom of speech. The school principal, being a government agent, is covered by this, and as such cannot abridge freedom of speech. Like he did.

  39. says

    “dan4 says:
    November 29, 2011 at 11:45 pm
    “…tell the principal to read the First Amendment.”

    Nice try, Mr. Brayton, but the First Amendment only prevents the government from fining and/or jailing a person for their speech. Last time I checked, a simple letter of apology doesn’t fall under either category.”

    WTF? It’s not bad enough we have the tone trolls hangin’ in their mama’s basements gettin’ pasty, flabby, malnourished and diabetic? Now we gotta get the ones that are so fucking stupid that their mamas have to type their comments for them?

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