Vriezen: Tweeting political views might get you in trouble

Claire Vriezen

In a Big Brother-esque scenario last week, a Kansas teen managed to alert the watchdogs of Governor Brownback, who seem to have nothing better to do than watch for Google hits on the governor’s name that cast him in a negative light.

Emma Sullivan, a high school senior, was participating in a Youth in Government program where she was listening to the governor speak. She tweeted to her handful of followers that she “just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

Now, apparently she didn’t actually say anything of that sort to the governor and was merely joking around. Regardless, those at the governor’s office found her tweet so offensive that they reported her comment to the Youth in Government program, which resulted in her principal reprimanding her and demanding she write an apology letter.

Of course, in the days of the Internet, stories such as these can go viral quite quickly, with the media coverage sparking a national conversation. After being blogged and re-blogged, Sullivan’s story had spread. All the attention resulted in the governor’s office admitting to overreacting and the school district dropping the matter.

With all the different social media outlets we have at our disposal these days, we’ve had to define how we should treat this type of speech and how much we must separate our public life from our personal life on the internet.

Emma Sullivan isn’t the first person to come under fire for posting a controversial or disagreeable status to her Facebook or Twitter. But should these types of speech influence our school life or our jobs?

Earlier this summer, a Florida public school teacher faced disciplinary action after posting hateful anti-gay remarks to his Facebook page. While it was eventually brought to light that his classroom syllabus contained overt references to his faith, had his comments simply been limited to his Facebook, he could likely make the same case as Sullivan did — his own beliefs and opinions that were expressed on his personal page are protected under the First Amendment.

In both of these situations, so long as personal views were not affecting any functionality as a teacher or, in Sullivan’s case, as a member of Youth in Government, there is little basis for disciplinary action.

It seems that people always forget that the First Amendment protects all speech — even, and perhaps especially, comments such as Sullivan’s, which criticizes a public official.

There is no question that Sullivan’s comments lacked respect for the governor. That seemed to be more or less the point of the controversial tweet. But if we can no longer express our lack of respect for an elected official when we disagree with their policies and decisions, it is a sad day for free speech.

Students shouldn’t have to worry that personal, political or religious views they express on social networking sites could hurt their current leadership or employment positions. Sure, you should be conscientious of what you say and who sees it, if you worry about future employers or schools viewing your opinions. You also want to ensure that your personal views don’t affect your ability to act professionally.

With an ever increasing visibility through Twitter and Facebook, we should not have to fear punishment for our ideas and thoughts. While any real attempts to engage in disciplinary action for an individual’s personal remarks have been met with opposition from civil rights groups, we must remain aware that oversensitive politicians such as Gov. Brownback may just try and get you in trouble for disliking them.