But this wasn't about free speech. This was about politeness.
Eighteen-year-old Emma Sullivan of Fairway, Kan., made national headlines Monday when Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback apologized to her on his Facebook page.
The impetus for the unusual mea culpa: a 73-character tweet and an overzealous political staffer.
During a Youth in Government field trip to the state capitol on Nov. 21, Sullivan tweeted, "Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot." The New York Times reports that Sullivan sent the tweet while "standing in the back of a crowd of about 100 students" as Brownback addressed the students. The Washington Post notes that Sullivan "didn't really say that to him … but said she sent the tweet as a joke to her friends."
Brownback's director of communication, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, somehow stumbled upon the tweet and didn't think it was very funny. She contacted event organizers to complain; word eventually reached the administration at Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kan., and last week principal Karl Krawitz ordered Sullivan to write a letter of apology to the governor.
But citing First Amendment free speech protections, Sullivan refused to say that she was sorry. Local support for her right to tweet her political conscience started boiling over in the media, and so on Monday Brownback felt obligated to apologize for Jones-Sontag's actions.
Brownback's Facebook apology "regarding the tweet by Emma Sullivan" begins, "My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize. Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms." (The full text is available here.)
In addition to the governor's apology, the Kansas teen also obtained thousands of new Twitter followers. The Los Angeles Times reports, "Sullivan's followers on Twitter increased from about five dozen to more than 11,000 in days, a rate of growth that would be the envy of any celebrity; she swamped Brownback, who has his nearly 3,300 followers. She also attracted a range of support, even offers of legal help, from those who saw the battle as one about free speech."
Sulivan perceived her growing number of Twitter followers as justification for her comment, Kansas TV station KSCW reported. The new followers meant to her that people were taking her side and that she didn't need to apologize after all.
Her apparent sudden popularity and the focus on freedom of speech led others to wonder what the incident means about civility, common sense and etiquette in America.
"It is incredible how often free speech is invoked in defense of what is simply rudeness," wrote Alexandra Petri at the washingtonpost.com's ComPost blog. "I am not somebody to curtail anyone's free speech. I retain the right to call Governor Brownback an asinine twerp with an unbecoming hair style that resembles a startled carpet, whose policy positions might well make a self-respecting 18 year-old quake.
"But this wasn't about free speech. This was about politeness. One of them is doing absolutely and entirely fine. The other one is on its last legs."
Petri continued, "It goes without saying that there are some things we should go without saying. The right to say something is not the obligation to say it publicly..."