I have always been of the opinion that respect is earned; it is not simply applied to someone based on age and experience. There are those whose opinions on this matter differ from mine. But it is my opinion that sometimes a person of little experience and only a decade or so of years on this earth may have more common sense and intellect than a person with a great many years of life under the belt.
I have also always valued my constitutional rights, especially freedom of speech. I like to express myself through speech; and I don't like to be held back when articulating my opinion, as is often made clear here on Motherly Law. Social media platforms, in general, afford many opportunities for using our freedom of speech in ways our founding fathers would have never dreamed of.
A person enjoys this right regardless of education, background, age or financial status. Of course, some of these rights are lessened or restricted when dealing with minors, particularly when dealing with students. And yet, students must not be muzzled or taught that they are not free to stand up for what they believe in or agree with and express their opinion.
While there is not a lawsuit involved in this instance, it does allow for an interesting case study.
The week of Thanksgiving, Emma Sullivan, a senior in high school, and her classmates from Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, KS, visited the Kansas State Capitol. Apparently, while on the tour of the capitol, Sullivan tweeted to her 60 or so friends following her on Twitter this statement:
"Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot"
Sophisticated? No. Polite? No. Funny? Inappropriate? I guess it depends on your age and opinion of Gov. Brownback. Something to make a fuss over? Not in my opinion.
To be clear, Sullivan did not actually make any mean comments, in person, to Brownback, but Sullivan doesn't agree with some of Brownback's policies and was particularly disappointed by the recent cuts to state aid to schools.
After some of her friends were joking about what they would really like to say about Brownback, she took out her phone and sent this tweet. She says she merely wished to get a laugh from her friends on Twitter. That was it. She didn't think much about it.
This statement would have been seen only by Sullivan's 60 followers on Twitter, if that many, if Brownback's Director of Communications, Sherienne Jones-Sontag, had not made a stink of it after running a routine search of Brownback's name on Twitter.
Instead, Jones-Sontag contacted Sullivan's principal and reported her tweet to him because it wasn't respectful. Based on this statement, I am assuming that if Sullivan had tweeted something along the lines of, "Wow, I am in awe of our amazing governor; what an honor it is to meet him" Jones-Sontag wouldn't have contacted the high school.
However, it wasn't and she did. Sullivan was then called into the principal's office and told to write an apology letter to the Gov. Brownback, the school's Youth in Government sponsor, the districts social studies coordinator and others. Sullivan reported to the Wichita Eagle that her principal had said it was embarrassing and that she had created a huge controversy.
Jones-Sontag felt that the tweet was inappropriate and thought the organizers of this school-sponsored state capitol visit should be aware of what was being said by a student in the group.
The school district spokesperson, Leigh Anne Neal, issued a statement to the Wichita Eagle explaining the school district's policy, in general, prior to being fully apprised of this incident,
"...students on school-sponsored field trips, in which they are representing the school, would be expected to conduct themselves in accordance with school district policies, including use of electronic devices. Students may express their personal beliefs, views and opinions, as long as they do so appropriately and in accordance with school policies."
Ironically, just a few days after this incident and the media coverage across the country, Sullivan had several thousand followers on Twitter. She now has almost 16,000 followers. So, is Sullivan one of these young, teen pundits spouting off about candidates and politics? No, not in the least. In fact, before this incident on November 21st, Sullivan was like most teens, conversing with friends about teen topics, with a number of tweets regarding the new Twilight movie.
And yet, even after all of this media attention and the 15,000 plus followers, Sullivan is still not using her voice simply for the sake of getting attention. She has tweeted only a few statements regarding this issue.
In another ironic twist, it was Gov. Brownback, not Sullivan, who issued the apology last Monday. Brownback stated that his staff had overreacted to this tweet and was sorry for that. Sullivan decided not to write the letters of apology and the school backed down from their demand that she do so because they felt that she had a constitutional right to express her opinion regarding the governor and did not break any rules.
According to the New York Daily News, Jones-Sontag had this gem of wisdom to offer, "It's also important for students to recognize the power of social media, how lasting it is. It is on the Internet."
Now, isn't that really a lesson for Jones-Sontag to learn? After all, if Jones-Sontag had simply left well-enough alone and never brought Sullivan's tweet to the attention of her principal and the school trip organizers, Sullivan would still have 60 followers on Twitter and neither the national media nor I would know the names Sherienne Jones-Sontag or Emma Sullivan.
So, yes, Sherienne, social media can be powerful and viral, if a statement is made by a celebrity of some sort or if an obscure tweet is brought to the attention of the country. In this case, Jones-Sontag's overreaction to an obscure 18 year-old girl's completely harmless tweet, ended up heaping negative attention on herself.
In the end, Sullivan and Brownback came out looking good. Sullivan stood her ground and won; and Brownback realized the overreaction and quickly put a stop to damaging his own name and reputation by issuing an apology. Fortunately, all legal action has been avoided in this account; and all ended well.
Except, that is, that students in Sullivan's school are now harassing and bullying her over this tweet and the ensuring media attention. She seems to again be standing her ground and taking it all in stride, saying in one tweet, "let's move on." Her original tweet that started this episode may not have been elegant, but Sullivan seems to have conducted herself very appropriately in handling this matter. Over and out...