First Amendment: The Right To Tweet

This was a pretty interesting story, in case you missed it, and it all started about a week ago.

Basically, a Kansas high schooler Emma Sullivan tweeted "just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot" to her 65 followers. A member of the Governor's staff discovered the tweet while combing Twitter for references to the Governor. Feeling the tweet was disrespectful, she got in touch with the Youth In Government program (which had put on the Sullivan's trip, with a larger group), which in turn contacted the school where the 18-year-old girl was enrolled. She got yelled at and was ordered to write an apology.

Cue the outcry. Since then, Sullivan has gained 14000+ followers. The school dropped the apology thing, and the Governor issued an apology statement.

Sullivan also indicated that the tweet was not actually true - that she didn't say mean things to the Governor's face - but that she disagreed with the Governor's conservative stance/policies. 

An opinion piece on CNN asks some really interesting questions - at least, several of which came to my mind as I was reading the story.

Among them...

  • How common is it for elected officials to have a social media monitor?  
  • Is it appropriate for an elected official (or said official's representative) to take action against negative comments?
  • Would this have happened if Sullivan was ten years older? (ie, not a high school student)
  • Should the fact that she was actually lying be a factor in the conversation? I'm no legal expert, but I'm pretty sure the tweet quoted above doesn't qualify as defamation.

I can think of at least one instance where a complaint conveyed over social media had a positive impact. Last year, during a "HoCo Thursdays" series of posts, Erinn at Something Else to Distract Me posted about the poor state of the roads in her development. Quickly she got a response from a member of the County Executive's staff, and I know that the roads in her neighborhood sure look a lot better now. This was a great instance of a member of government noticing a negative comment and moving quickly to address the issue. (hocoblogs@@@)

Likewise, I can see how a monitor of social media would be useful in locating false claims/libel that could damage a person's reputation. 

Still, I wonder if there are specific people targeted to monitor social media, or if it's something by chance - for example, was Erinn's post noticed because the staff member reads her blog, or because the staff member is in charge of monitoring Howard County-related posts?

And if there is a staffer employed to monitor social media, should that be disclosed? Where?

Although the Kansas incident has a creepy, Big-Brother feel to it - and clearly got out of hand - I do think that social media (facebook, twitter, blogs) can be a very powerful tool through which constituents and elected officials can communicate.  

Thoughts? Leave 'em in the comments below.


  1. this is fascinating. I hadn't heard this story and I'm appalled at the governor's behavior. So right that he's the one who needed to apologize. Whatever happened to freedom of speech? Yes that means freedom to Tweet. Great post. Will share to Twitter.

  2. I do think the apologies issued were correct.

    Thinking more about it, though, what stays with me is that this most likely happened because she's a "kid" -- her tweet was immature, but it wasn't illegal. Both the school and the government's office should have responded differently. Talk about a missed "teachable moment".

  3. So the "Kansas incident has a creepy Big-brother feel to it." Have you and CNN conveniently forgotten about attackwatch.com? A member of the governor's staff overreacts and everyone gets their knickers in a bunch, yet POTUS establishes an organized mechanism to track anti-Obama press and internet comments and that doesn't have a "creepy Big-Brother feel to it?". Really?

  4. Anonymous, I'm confused. Are you upset because I/CNN (more or less the same thing, of course) failed to cover attackwatch.com in this post or others? Or are you saying that the existence of attackwatch.com invalidate arguments against something like the Kansas incident?

    For anyone else who has "conveniently forgotten about attackwatch" (or for anyone who.. you know... just missed it), here's a convenient link up courtesy of the WaPo: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/attack-watch-new-obama-campaign-site-to-fight-smears-becomes-laughing-stock-of-the-internet/2011/09/14/gIQAspHDSK_blog.html

  5. Ok, now that I'm caught up... I can think of three things off the top of my head.

    1) "Attackwatch.com" appears to be a hub designed to dispute smear attacks. Like a fact checker.

    2) It's financed by the 2012 presidential campaign.

    3) It was announced at launch on Sept 13/14 (which explains why I missed it, as I was working 18 hours days and definitely not blogging).

    In contrast, the incident described in the post involved an official employed by the Governor's office (tax dollars) and involved active suppression of a negative remark (they went to Sullivan - or, more accurately, an authority figure above her).

    Attackwatch.com is pretty weird and creepy, I'm not arguing that. Just pointing out the differences in a way that's relevant to the discussion.

  6. I will say that for my job, I have a Google search and Twitter searches set up so I can keep track of what people are saying-- both to respond as well as to monitor. I don't think it's too out of the ordinary. However, the overreactions on all parts are.

  7. P.S. It's good to have you back!