Teen Tweeter Teaching Kansas Governor, School Principal a Social Media Lesson

A Kansas high school student, Emma Sullivan, posted a tweet last week during a field trip to the state capitol — “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” What followed is an example of how little some people know about how this whole social media thing works.

Seeing the tweet, Governor Sam Brownback’s comms director, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, reported Sullivan to her principal, who then issued a decree saying that Sullivan should send an apology to the Governor.

“My principal told me he needed to do damage control and was really upset,” Sullivan told CNN.

Actually, the tweet probably would’ve gone unnoticed by everyone except for Brownback’s staff had they accepted that not everyone in the state would be supportive of the Governor. According to the AP, Sullivan only had 65 followers before the tweet. Now she has more than 9,200.

Moreover, she’s now getting support from others, including prominent blogs like Daily Kos, who see the apology demand as a breach of free speech; the hashtag is collecting all sorts of criticism against Gov. Brownback; and Jones-Sontag is now in the spotlight, with Romenesko publishing a detailed synopsis of her CV, typos and all.

Sullivan says she’s opposed to the Governor’s politics, including a decision to veto the state’s arts commission budget.

Brownback’s team gets credit for monitoring social media. But monitoring efforts shouldn’t result in an effort to force people not to say things you don’t like. Rather, as Sullivan points out, it’s an opportunity to talk with people about why they feel the way they do.

In all likelihood, upon seeing that the offending tweet came from a high school student, Brownback’s staff thought they could bully her into a retraction. Certainly, that’s what they did to Sullivan’s principal, who folded like an origami swan. Instead, they’re getting a taste of what happens when disapproval bubbles up from the bottom.

Update: Not only are they getting a taste, they’ve gotten the message. Gawker reports that Gov. Brownback’s office has issued an apology, calling the incident an “over-reaction.” And the school board has issued a statement saying they acknowledge a student’s right to free speech.

That is awesome.