Student Not Sorry For Critical Tweet Of Governor

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Emma Sullivan recently sent a tweet criticizing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. She refused to apologize, despite demands from her school and the governor's office. She and her mother speak with host Michel Martin about the line between manners and free speech. (Advisory: This segment contains language that may not be suitable for all audiences.)

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we mark the end of Native American Heritage Month by speaking with a member of the Cherokee Nation who is also an up and coming NASCAR driver. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, a story about the fine line between manners and free speech in the age of new media. Last week, during a class trip with a Youth in Government program in Topeka, Kansas, 18 year old high school senior, Emma Sullivan, listened to Governor Sam Brownback speak.

Now, most of us have probably, at one time or another, used moments like this to pass notes to our friends. Emma Sullivan did just that, but she did it on Twitter and she wrote - and we have to note that this quote contains language some might find offensive - just made mean comments at Governor Brownback and told him he sucked in person - #he blows a lot.

Well, she never actually sent anything to Governor Brownback and says that it was meant as a joke between friends. The governor's office and her school administrators were not laughing. Turns out that a member of the governor's staff saw the Tweet while monitoring mentions of Brownback's name. They alerted her school. The principal demanded she write an apology. She refused and tweeted, so I've decided not to write the letter, but I hope this opens the door for average citizens to voice their opinion and to be heard about it at - #going strong.

Now, the school has backed down. The governor has said his own staff overreacted and issued an apology to Emma. We thought this was one of those interesting teachable moments. The question is, what's the lesson? We decided to ask Emma and her mother, Julie Sullivan. They're both with us from their home in the Kansas City suburb of Fairway. I understand they're both fighting bad colds and little bit of sniffles, so despite that, they've agreed to join us.

Thank you both for joining us.

JULIE SULLIVAN: Hi, Michel. Thank you for having us.

EMMA SULLIVAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Emma, let me start with you. You said the governor sucked. Why did you write that?

SULLIVAN: Actually, at the time, he was talking about his new education policy and talking about what he planned to do with funding for better test scores and stuff. And my friend, Ryan, was actually sitting next to me, telling me some horror story of - his uncle got fired because something he did that affected Brownback. I don't remember the story exactly, but you know, it was - you know, heat of the moment, I tweeted it at Ryan and it kind of exploded from there.

MARTIN: Why did you say you told him that he sucked? What was that about?

SULLIVAN: Well, the thing is, me and Ryan were kind of saying things we wish we could ask because we knew that our school sponsors wouldn't exactly approve if we raised our hands and, you know, asked, like, why did you privatize arts mission? Because people are asking questions like, what's your favorite part of being governor? Like, do you like when people recognize you? You know, questions like that. It wasn't, you know, that the students were asking serious political questions, so it was fairly implied to, like, not get up there and, you know, criticize him or anything.

And, basically, I was supposed to tag him in the Tweet and he was actually saying similar things, but my Tweet's the only one that got noticed. I just kind of forgot to, like, tag him in it. It was just an inside joke between the two of us.

MARTIN: Okay. So tell me why you refused to write the letter of apology.

SULLIVAN: Well, right off the bat, I was willing to write it just because I wanted to get the situation out of the way. You know, I wanted to put it behind me. I didn't want it to affect me applying to schools or, you know, my high school career and my relationship with the principal and the administration.

But as soon as this, you know, frenzy started and I started to get - you know, it slowly started off with a few hundred tweets and a few hundred followers and, you know, now it's up to thousands. It definitely was the support that changed my mind.

MARTIN: Mrs. Sullivan, let's bring you into this conversation. What did you think when you heard about all this, when you heard about all this kerfuffle involving Emma's tweet?

SULLIVAN: Well, sure. I was at work at the time and I was actually with a client, a patient. My oldest daughter called me and said, you need to call Emma. And so I stepped out of session and I called Emma and she was crying so hard I could barely hear her. She was very scared and she was saying that she did something wrong and she did something bad and the principal had made her feel that she did something shameful and that he was embarrassed of her.

Anyway, I kept telling her that everything was going to be OK and I then told her to remember, people have been fighting for their civil liberties for a long time and there's been a lot worse repercussions than this; than a scolding from a principal. And I reminded her of incidences like Rosa Parks and people getting hung, you know, just trying to make her feel better, that she was doing the right thing.

MARTIN: Just to let you know, we called Governor Sam Brownback's office and his office issued the same statement to us that they did to the rest of the media, saying that - acknowledging that the staff overreacted and school officials also issued a statement that they would not demand an apology from Emma.

But what strikes you about the school's role in this?

SULLIVAN: Well, I believe that the principal's office misunderstood that Emma tweeted to the governor himself. It was discovered by his staff because it contained a word, Governor Brownback, and that they picked up on it and then they emailed the school and told on her.

MARTIN: So what do you make, Emma, of the fact that the governor apologized that his staff overreacted and, apparently, the school administrators have decided to drop their demand that you apologize?

SULLIVAN: I'm glad that the governor and his office have sent out an apology. It would have been a lot better and I would have respected it more if it would have been directly at me or to my family or other involved parties because it was just kind of a generic, like, sorry for the situation.

MARTIN: Is there anything you're sorry for?

SULLIVAN: I'm not sorry for anything at this point because I still - you know, I still believe what I do. I kind of regret that the situation turned out the way it did, though, and that I got this thing. I'm glad that it did just to kind of open up some doors and the conversation in the situation of the social media and...

MARTIN: The fact that, like, he was surveying, you know...

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...tweets from an 18 year old as part of the (unintelligible) OK, we said at the beginning of this conversation we thought this might be a teachable moment. So, Emma, I'll ask you first and then I'm going to ask your mom. What do you think the lesson is here?

SULLIVAN: Well, the lesson is supposed to be that you should watch things you say just in case that someone did actually find it, like in my case, you know, I had no fathomable idea that the governor or anyone in his office would actually every see it and that people will call you out for your wrongdoings. Yet, I think the lesson isn't being actually pushed to the point where it's supposed to because, if I'm getting in trouble for this one political opinion I have, then why aren't the hundreds of students currently, right now, sitting under the school's roof, tweeting terrible, hurtful things about the situation, saying cruder things than I said, you know, using worse language, but nothing's being done about it as of right now.

MARTIN: And, Mrs. Sullivan, what about you? What do you think the lesson is here for all this?

SULLIVAN: I think we need to have a format and start discussing the freedom of speech as it deals with our social networking, our social medias. We don't even know what to teach our kids because we're not clear on who is getting these tweets, how they can be used to punish people. And it's like we need to start formulating, at least talking about, what our freedoms of speech are on the social network.

MARTIN: Julie Sullivan and her daughter, Emma Sullivan, joined us from their home near Kansas City, Kansas. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SULLIVAN: Thank you, Michel.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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