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The girl who dared to tweet about Gov. Brownback

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 11:06 AM EST, Tue November 29, 2011
Emma Sullivan was ordered by her high school principal to apologize for a tweet critical of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
Emma Sullivan was ordered by her high school principal to apologize for a tweet critical of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kansas student tweeted her disapproval of Gov. Sam Brownback
  • Governor's office objected, and the student's principal told her to apologize
  • Dean Obeidallah: Governor's office impinged on free speech
  • He says governor apologized, now he needs to stop monitoring social sites

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah is a comedian who has appeared on Comedy Central's "Axis of Evil" special, ABC's "The View," CNN's "What the Week" and HLN's "The Joy Behar Show." He is executive producer of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and the Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- There is a new scandal breaking involving an elected official, a young woman and Twitter. And, nope, it's not what you think.

This one involves 18-year-old Kansas high school senior Emma Sullivan, who was on a school trip last week to the Kansas state Capitol as part of the Youth in Government program. On her way back from the event, she jokingly tweeted to her then-65 followers on Twitter the following about Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback: "Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot."

When you tweet to 65 people on Twitter, it usually just ends there, quickly evaporating into the cybersphere -- tweets are truly the epitome of ephemeral.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

That is unless you happen to tweet about the governor of Kansas. In a move that would have undoubtedly impressed Richard Nixon, the Kansas governor's director of communication, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, is charged with the daily monitoring of any negative comments about Brownback on social-media websites.

Jones-Sontag, finding this 73-character tweet by a high school student a threat to the good name of the governor, bolted into action. She contacted the Youth in Government organizers and expressed her outrage over the tweet. In turn, the event administrators, no doubt concerned that the governor's director of communication had taken the time to contact them, informed Sullivan's high school principal.

Sullivan soon found herself in her principal's office being scolded for nearly an hour. Bottom line: The principal has mandated the student write a letter of apology to the governor that is due Monday.

Sullivan, who says she was making a political comment on Brownback's conservative policies that she disagrees with, announced her refusal to apologize for criticizing the governor.

See an interview with Emma Sullivan

To me, there are a few issues that quickly jump out:

• Who else has the governor confronted for making negative remarks about him? Recent polls indicate that Brownback has a 52% disapproval rating -- with a majority of Kansas residents unhappy with his work. Responding to these type of tweets could become a full-time job.

• Is the governor spending taxpayer dollars to monitor his critics on social media?

• Which websites does his office monitor? Obviously Twitter, but what about Facebook and Foursquare? What about MySpace or Friendster? You never know -- someone stuck in 2007 could still be using those websites and making disparaging remarks about Brownback.

• Why is it that a conservative such as Brownback -- who generally opposes government regulations -- wants to regulate free speech? Is there an exception to his philosophy of less government when it is a regulation he likes?

• Can Brownback demand an apology from me because I tweeted this: "Rep Governor Brownback of Kansas demands that teen apologize for tweeting he sucks. #Brownbacksucks" -- and because I'm one of the people who boosted Sullivan's Twitter follower count to more than 7,000 since this story broke?

But the biggest question to me: Does the First Amendment apply in Kansas?

The message of Brownback's office and of the high school principal is alarmingly clear: If you criticize the governor, you could suffer consequences. That is something you hear about in a Third World nation that does not guarantee freedom of speech, not the United States of America.

We need to be especially vigilant in protecting freedom of speech when it involves commenting on the actions of our elected officials. That is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. Having to apologize to an elected official for criticizing him or her, however, undermines our nation by creating a chilling effect on free speech.

Brownback did announce this afternoon: "My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize."

Governor apologizes for 'overreaction'

He should be applauded for that. It sends an unequivocal message that criticism of our elected officials must not be limited in any way, and in fact, should be encouraged -- especially by the younger generation of Americans learning about our government.

However, it is still troubling that state funds are used to monitor social media websites to determine if anyone is mocking the governor.  It has an eerie Big Brother feel, not to mention that it's a waste of tax payer dollars. 

Brownback should end that practice today, making his focus solely the issues facing all the residents of Kansas -- not whether he's popular on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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