Shawnee Mission East teen Emma Sullivan insulted Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback over Twitter while on a school field trip to the state capitol last week.
"Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot," she wrote to her 60 followers who tuned in to her sporadic updates about the Twilight films and Justin Bieber. In fact, Sullivan hadn't said a word to the governor during his brief speech, and she now says the Twitter comment was just an "inside joke" among her high school friends who were also on the Youth in Government field trip and disagreed with Brownback's politics.
But the humor was lost on members of Brownback's staff, who found the tweet while scouring social media sites for his name and alerted Sullivan's high school principal. The principal reprimanded Sullivan and demanded she write an apology to the governor.
Sullivan says he better not hold his breath. After originally acquiescing to her principal's request, the 18-year-old took her story to Kansas papers and news stations--and now to national outlets--and has changed her mind.
"He was very angry, right off the bat," Sullivan said of her principal, Karl Krawitz. "He was extremely scared about it. He made it very clear that he wasn't happy."
Sullivan agreed to write the apology letter "to get it out of the way," she says. "I didn't want to deal with it because I'm in the process of applying to school and am trying to keep my reputation good."
But she soon thought the better of it, after calling her older sister, Olivia, who is a political science major at Wichita State University and is now managing her flood of interview requests. "I wasn't sorry for what I said because I meant it," Sullivan says. She disagrees with Brownback, a Republican, on rights for gay couples and abortion rights, among other things.
And while Sullivan's tweet is still rude, Brownback's staff response makes him look thin-skinned and unable to take a joke. "I can't believe they would prioritize that over other issues they have going on now," Sullivan says. "I can't believe they take time out of their day to look at social media and Twitter for his name."
Hundreds of people have left negative comments on Brownback's Facebook Thanksgiving message. "The imperial Gov needs to go to the school, apologize to the assembled students and then apologize in person to the young lady," one person wrote.
In a comment to the Kansas City Star last week, Brownback's communications director stood behind the decision to notify Sullivan's principal. "That wasn't respectful," Sherriene Jones-Sontag told the paper. "In order to really have a constructive dialogue, there has to be mutual respect."
But Brownback submitted a statement Monday afternoon to Yahoo! News apologizing to the teen. "My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms," he said. Jones-Sontag told Yahoo! that the governor has no plans to personally reach out to Sullivan.
Sullivan, who now has more than 9,000 Twitter followers and has begun quoting Gandhi, says she hopes the principal will accept her decision not write an apology letter. She says the incident has been a "reality check" to her and her friends that their comments on social media sites are not anonymous nor consequence-free.
"It would be nice to kind of talk to the governor and let him know where I'm at and say things, let my opinion be heard and tell him that he needs to listen to more people in Kansas," Sullivan says. "There needs to be an open door for more people to speak their opinion and be heard by him."
Update: Gov. Brownback's statement apologizing to Sullivan has been added to this story. His full statement is below:
"My staff over-reacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms. I enjoyed speaking to the more than 100 students who participated in the Youth in Government Program at the Kansas Capitol. They are our future. I also want to thank the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum. Again, I apologize for our over-reaction"