Kansas teen makes her point

November 30, 2011


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., was listening to Gov. Sam Brownback speak last week at a “Youth in Government” program in Topeka. 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 fewer 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.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email is


Oldsoul 2 years, 4 months ago

Can't believe the Ethics Professors on KCUR the other day said that not having to apologize was a Pyrrhic victory for this teen.


purplesage 2 years, 4 months ago

The insolent teen got caught being rude and disrespectful. I support the principal. He's right; it is an embarassment. Freedom of speech is one thing; respect - for the office and the individual who holds it - whether you agree with that person or not - is something quite different.

By the way - how do you suppose it would have been received if instead of Gov. Brownback the subject of the rude commentary had been President Obama? And, what if she had crossed the line and made a racial slur or insinuation? No one, including Leonard Pitts, would be coming to her defense, nor should they.

People are making this something it is not. The question is not the Constitution or free speech. We need to teach young people respect. That's all.


bearded_gnome 2 years, 4 months ago

her lying (not a j-o-k-e) and saying that she had said something to Gov. Brownback, saying he sucks or blows (apparently not at the same time, lol) does not represent her school well at all and does not take any wisdom, insight, or courage.

in fact, pittsie, what the heck point was she making anyway?
we know that other left wackies have threatened the principal's life.
her tweet and the threats against her principal illustrate the acutely uncivil left in our country.

yes, the same people who presume to lecture us conservatives and real americans about civility. lol.

uncivil left in action: where'd she learn that language; and more to the point , where'd she learn that 'tude? home, of course! from left wackie parents.


begin60 2 years, 4 months ago

I have met nothing but ethical poverty in KS, so Brownback must just be the leader-in-chief of this trend. What kind of brainiacs insist to be recognized as helpful when they are obviously only succeeding in terrorizing strangers? How can you be so thick not to realize strangers might not welcome you messing with them? That Kansans for you--- programmed to a tee to ignore commonsense decency.


weeslicket 2 years, 4 months ago

i could only read some of the commentary. mostly, i'm just glad all this brou-ha-ha will come to its tired expiration. also, i am glad governor brownback made his apology.

and off to work tomorrow we all go.


Armored_One 2 years, 4 months ago

At what point does a joke stop being a joke? Usually it requires being elected as governor of Kansas, but I digress.

Nobody balked at the thought of suspending the freedom of speech for Phelps, but the perceived infringement of an 18 year old high school student's speech has you reaching for pitchforks and torches. Not a single person would have bat an eyelash if SCOTUS had ruled against Phelps instead of in their favor.

Rights are for everybody, not just the ones that you happen to either agree with or feel sympathy for. Honestly, laws were passed that targetted Phelps' actions directly, but I heard no chants for politicians to be recalled. One fool on a fool's relations board jerks the chain a little bit and the howls for blood and vengence almost shake the leaves off the trees.

You should all be ashamed. Proclaiming to uphold rights and liberties and int he same breath congratulating law makers for restricting those same rights and liberties for people you don't like.

Personally, I'd like to turn Phelps and everyone in his clan that can't breathe without methane into a popcicle and the stick would be their nasty damned signs. As American citizens, though, I'd much rather they be allowed to be vile, vulgar and hateful than to delegate them into some second class limbo where their rights aren't as important.

I hold the same opinion for the KKK, Black Panthers, and every other organization, clan or group that does not hold a meek, centristic opinion that they keep to themselves. Do Iike the hatred or bigotry in their messages? Not one syllable's worth. Do I want them to have less rights than I do?



TomJoad23 2 years, 4 months ago

Brownback is such a baby, a terrible governor and a true crazy right wing Zealot. There is nothing wrong with Conservatives, just when they go all batty and start taking away freedoms while calling you a freedom hating terrorist. I mean at what point do we just beat these bullies up?


Stain 2 years, 4 months ago

I'm sure Brownback supporters criticizing Emma will support the right of those who are bullying Emma, calling her foul names and threatening her, to use their First Amendment rights.



Stain 2 years, 4 months ago

This is a new low, even for Brownback. I hope this gets a lot of national attention, and that folks will remember it in 4 years when he uses his destruction of Kansas as a platform to run for president as the Koch brothers' candidate.

Which party stands for individual freedom? Not Republicans, not anymore.

I have to hand it to Emma for standing up for her beliefs and her freedom, even with the principal pressuring her. It gives me hope for our country to know a young person won't always take the path of least resistance, when something important is on the line. This became not about her harmless tweet, but about our basic freedoms.

Since when did Republicans care about the civility of our discourse? Don't forget Limbaugh, Coulter, Palin, and their hate-filled, insulting rhetoric. Did Brownback ever call upon them to be respectful?

Thin-skinned, petty, vindictive, hypocritical. Not presidential material. And I hope he'll be a one-term governor in Kansas. One term is more than enough. I wonder if Kansas will eventually recall him. Even Republicans are fed up.


beatrice 2 years, 4 months ago

imastinker: "Also, it wasn't a joke, it was a LIE." xlusive85: "Emma lied!"

I guess next thing people will be saying is that a rabbi, an aligator and two penguins really didn't walk into a bar.

Jokes rarely are based on actual occurrences. Her tweet was a joke, since she obviously didn't say anything to the Governor's face.


Deb Stavin 2 years, 4 months ago

Don't worry, riverdrifter: those coyotes were lying! :-)


riverdrifter 2 years, 4 months ago

As I previously stated elsewhere, a high school girl pinned a clown suit on our guvner and it fits him perfectly. Even the staunch Republicans I know are finished with Mr. Brownback. Passed on a good buck this morning -just not good enough for the first hunt of the season. I got an hour-long yappy tongue lashing at a distance from 2 coyotes who resented me being on their turf.


autie 2 years, 4 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.


Cait McKnelly 2 years, 4 months ago

This entire thing was a tempest in a teapot created by, not Emma Sullivan, a teenager bumping along with her life and looking forward to the Winter Formal, Prom and graduation, but by Sam Brownback. (Even if he didn't personally make the complaint, his staffer did and he must take responsibility for it. ) By all means it was petty. The comment was petty and the response was petty. Thing is, if you have ever lived with a teenager, you expect petty things out of teenagers. It's being an adolescent. You don't expect a governor's office to respond in kind. Brownback's "apology" was flat out damage control. It wasn't until the furor reached international levels in London and Berlin that he decided to even say something about it. I really think he was hoping it would just die down and go away. He didn't even apologize to Emma. (In fact I don't think he even mentioned her by name in his "apology".) He apologized to his constituents and the media for the furor that was created but not for the actions that created it. (In other words it was a "politician's apology"; about as fake and insincere as it gets.) Poor BB. His last poll numbers were sitting at 40%. This ain't gonna help.


jayhawklawrence 2 years, 4 months ago

I am one of those who believe we need to investigate our politicians and their activities in government and make government transparent again. Brownback would be high on my list.

Our country has been taken over by special interests, lobbyists and money. What is most disturbing is the sophistication of some of these corporate funded political front groups and how they are now literally directing the activities and votes in our legislative bodies.

If you are a person who is committed to a right wing or a left wing group it simply means, in my view, that you have lost the ability to think for yourself and you are just a pawn of these groups who specialize in creating propaganda.

Most Americans hope for leaders with experience, knowledge and character who view public service as a noble profession. We hope for leaders who see the value in self sacrifice and living for the sake of others.

For the kind of politicians we are used to seeing of late, these are foolish notions.


toe 2 years, 4 months ago

This should help empower students to speak truths about their mean demanding teachers that have no business grading them on performance. The real tragedy is the continue decline in education. The principal and any teachers at that school will think twice before holding any student accountable for their actions.


Liberty_One 2 years, 4 months ago

Good for her, standing up to the government and the government school system that tried to make her an obedient serf. If only there were more people that stood up against the state maybe things would be better now.


xclusive85 2 years, 4 months ago

While I agree she has the right to say/tweet whatever she chooses and the situation got out of hand, Emma lied! Her whole tweet was a lie except for possibly the heblowsalot part of it. She could have made her point and a similar joke without the lie.


imastinker 2 years, 4 months ago

I'm surprised she's allowed to be tweeting when she's supposed to be learning in school. What's up with that?

Also, it wasn't a joke, it was a LIE. Don't make it into something it's not. I agree with all your other points, but let's not make stuff up to make the story sound better. She lied about what she did, or in this case; didn't do.


Paul R Getto 2 years, 4 months ago

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.... this is over; watch what Muscular Sam does, not what he says or whom his minions monitor. There was a cute letter in the KC Star a day or two ago. Writer pointed out if someone is compiling all the negative comments about the Gov, they must be working very long hours.


woodscolt 2 years, 4 months ago

Pitts' understanding of this situation goes lock and step with the majority of Americans. I can't imagine that I could be standing in front of Brownback lecturing me and not have had exactly the same thoughts Emma did and be repulsed by him enough to acknowledge it to my friends. I think her choice of words showed some constraint. Far stronger language could have been warranted by Brownback lecture. Pitt makes a good point. Brownback, did you think your audience was bovine.(or is it just you that is bovine) Do you think Kansas is Bovine. Sure, your supporters are but there is the rest of the country,(world) that isn't.


woodscolt 2 years, 4 months ago

Incredulous that two out of the first four posts are of the vitrolic, and hatefull nature.


observant 2 years, 4 months ago

"the importance of mutual respect and civil dialogue". It's very obvious from your posts you lack an understanding of such a concept.


its_just_math 2 years, 4 months ago

I never want to reminded by the left again about the importance of mutual respect and civil dialogue---ever.



grammaddy 2 years, 4 months ago

Great piece Leonard! Emma, looks like you've made the "Big Time".We'll know for sure when they spoof you on SNL.


Commenting has been disabled for this item.