Commentary: Brownback's staff overreacted to teen's free speech

The Miami HeraldDecember 1, 2011 

PITTS LEONARD 1

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

CHUCK KENNEDY — KRT

Let’s talk about the smallness first.

Yes, the bullying is troubling, the thin-skinned aversion to criticism vexing. But in the end, it is the piddling, picayune pettiness, the sheer, Lilliputian smallness of the behavior that I can’t quite get past.

We are talking about Emma Sullivan’s tweet — and the governor’s response. For those who haven’t heard, it seems Sullivan, an 18-year-old senior at a high school just south of Kansas City, Kan., heard Gov. Sam Brownback speak last week at a Youth in Government program in Topeka. Afterward, Sullivan, no fan of the governor, sent the following tweet to her Twitter followers, who numbered perhaps 60: “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

She had not in fact met Brownback, much less said mean things to him. It was a joke, spelled j-o-k-e, among friends and it would have come and gone in her normal run of tweets about Justin Bieber and the Twilight movies — except the governor’s office happened upon it while patrolling the Net for mentions of his name.

Next thing you know, a Brownback aide contacts Youth in Government, which contacts Sullivan’s principal. Rather than defending her right to free expression and telling both Youth in Government and the governor’s office to take a flying leap, the principal calls Sullivan to his office and berates her for “embarrassing” the school. He orders her to apologize.

Sullivan has refused. On Monday she was vindicated, as Brownback apologized to her, saying his staff “overreacted.”

Geez, ya think?

It is astonishing that an aide to the state’s highest official would have the time or the interest necessary to monitor — and seek to punish — what is said about him by a teenager to an audience of less than 100 people. Apparently, Kansas is a paradise where all the serious problems have been solved.

This episode seems par for the Zeitgeist, an era wherein our politics frequently feel shrunken and faintly absurd and elected officials often seem more concerned about manipulating and controlling the perception of their leadership than with providing leadership. Think Florida Gov. Rick Scott, making up a form letter for his supporters to send to newspaper editors praising his bang-up stewardship of a banged-up state. Think Mike Winder, a small town mayor in Utah who posed as a so-called “citizen journalist” and anonymously wrote articles quoting himself. Think President George W. Bush, whose administration paid newspaper columnists to write favorably about his policies.

It is not just the smallness — the ethical poverty of those tactics — that stands out. One is also taken by the contempt they suggest for the intelligence of the American electorate.

The nation’s symbol is, as you know, the bald eagle, prized for its fierceness and proud bearing. But if we are what some politicians seem to think we are, perhaps that symbol ought instead to be the cow — a docile beast, easily herded. I repeat: if.

Emma Sullivan, for one, is not yet bovine. And she did not “embarrass” her school — her principal did. No, her only “sin” was that she expressed an opinion, albeit rudely. She refused to be herded. She got out of line.

Good for her. That’s what Americans do.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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