Freedom of Tweet?

November 30, 2011

Political Theory

A recent event ties together several aspects of what we have discussed in this class. On the way home from a field trip to Kansas’s capital city, a high school student named Emma Sullivan tweeted the following message: “Just made mean comments about gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot”. Sullivan’s tweet was regarding Governor Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of Kansas. She aimed to describe her disagreement with some of his

Emma Sullivan, retrieved from

more conservative policies, a matter that seems to be clearly within her rights to free speech. However, his staff reacted strongly. Through a chain of pointed fingers, Sullivan’s principal became aware of this situation. Sullivan was sent to the principal’s office, yelled at for an hour, and required to write a letter of apology to the governor. Sullivan refused to write the letter, and Governor Brownback later apologized for the actions of his staff.

In Brownback’s apology, he demonstrates an understanding of the importance of our rights: “Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms.” However, the actions of his staff suggest that they may not have this same understanding or belief. To react in the way that they did suggests that the staff considered it acceptable for a person to be punished for what he or she says/types, or that people can at least be censored. The theorist we have studied who would be most outraged by this would be John Stuart Mill. With the three basic possibilities that discourage silencing of opinions (the silenced opinion could be true, it could be false, or there could be a bit of truth in it), Mill’s view on this situation can be determined. Clearly, he would believe that Sullivan should be allowed to tweet whatever she wants, regardless of the status or importance of her subjects. Brownback appears to believe this as well, since he apologized soon after he heard about the situation. However, the opinions of his staff are slightly less clear.

Governor Brownback, retrieved from

Some of our more recent discussions can be applied here, as well, specifically the ideas of classical conservatism. The policies of Governor Brownback are somewhat conflicting from this perspective, as they can be considered to be classically conservative in some cases, and more radical in others. For instance, using the idea that the a classically conservative politician or person depends on tradition as a political determinant, Brownback’s views on gay rights are conservative. He opposes gay marriage, a stand that supports tradition and the way American society has been throughout history. However, his views on the arts in schools are somewhat more radical. Governor Brownback’s veto of funding for the Kansas Arts Commission made Kansas the first state in the United States to cut funding from its arts programs. Governor Brownback would be difficult to place on a continuum of Conservative<—>Radical, although I would argue that the majority of his policies would place him closer to the conservative end. What do you think? Is it possible for all people to be placed somewhere on this continuum? If not, is there a new type of scale that would be less bipolar, and would allow for placement of people who have differing views on different topics?




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3 Comments on “Freedom of Tweet?”

  1. emmaknev Says:

    I can relate to Governor Brownback because I, too, have differing beliefs about things. On some subjects I hold a more liberal view, and on others a more conservative view. So, I understand how it may be difficult to place someone on such a scale. I think that perhaps separating topics of discussion, social issues, economics, etc., would help people see where politicians really stand. Instead of having a simple conservative liberal scale we could make it more specific by having this scale for each different issue. For example, one governor might be liberal on the issue of abortion, but conservative when it comes to economic policy. These more specific scales, labeled by issue, would allow voters to see exactly where the candidates stand. However, this seems a bit unfeasible to me because it may get very complicated and may prove difficult to keep track of.

  2. elmatts25 Says:

    I think there are two completely different arguments in this post. First being Sullivan’s freedom of speech. I agree that it was inappropriate for Gov. Brownback and his staff to ask her to apologize. If politicians asked people to apologize every time someone said something bad about them, they would have no time for politics. What Sullivan tweeted was not slander, was not illegal or even explicit. She publicly stated her opinion and is fully allowed to do so. Next, the issue of a political party affiliation continuum was presented. Personally, I consider myself Republican but don’t necessarily agree with every conservative stance. It is completely possible for someone to be placed on a continuum from conservative to radical. I think it is almost problematic that Americans must affiliate themselves with a particular party. There are so many stereotypes and negative connotations with today’s political parties that it is distracting from the current issues and political opinions. Even someone registered as “independent” attracts preconceived notions about their personality, values and beliefs. I’m not saying that we should not have explicit party affiliation, but something that would better represent people along the continuum would be nice.

  3. rachdavidson Says:

    I agree with the above comment on the two different topics of this post. I am choosing to respond to the issue of freedom of speech, because although you didn’t focus as much on it, I feel you propose an interesting question. I, too, have noticed in recent media that people have begun being questioned for the things they voice through places like Twitter, and Facebook. Celebrities are having their twitters revoked by publicists for commentating on public issues, students at Penn State are being harassed for posting their feelings about the football scandal occurring at their school. We are supposed to be in the new age of technology, where things are made easier with just a click of a button. And, I guess it is nice that places like Facebook and Twitter give people the ability to spread their messages faster than any other method and still have such a big audience. But, is twitter doing more than just limiting us to a 150 line status? Are these social networking cites limiting our freedom of speech? It this new age actually a step in the right direction or is it actually harming our freedoms? I think recent news, as you have shown, is pointing to the latter, which I find very sad.

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