Public school officials in Kansas have retracted a demand that 18-year-old Emma Sullivan apologize for a tweet disparaging Gov. Sam Brownback. According to an official statement, the Shawnee Mission School District "acknowledges a student's right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally protected." Sullivan, a senior at Shawnee Mission East High School, was part of a group that visited Topeka last week to learn about state government. As Brownback addressed the students, she sent a tweet that expressed her general attitude toward the governor: "Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot." Sullivan had not, in fact, made mean comments to Brownback, but the Twitter monitors on his staff were neither amused by her joke nor impressed by her incisive political commentary. They complained to the school, which told Sullivan she had to write the governor a letter of apology. She refused, and the school backed down after the tweet and its consequences received national attention.
The Supreme Court has given school officials substantial leeway to regulate students' speech while they are under school supervision, extending even to the banners they raise at off-campus events. Had Sullivan been disciplined for shouting "You suck!" at Brownback, it probably would have passed muster on the grounds that her behavior was disruptive. But since her comment caused an uproar only after the event was over, and then only because the governor's staff objected to it, the school district was wise to retreat.
Update: Brownback apologizes to Sullivan:
My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms. I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future. I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum. Again, I apologize for our over-reaction.