The XX Factor

Sam Brownback Panics Over Teenaged Tweet

Sam Brownback.
Gov. Sam Brownback tried to force Emma Sullivan, 18, to apologize for tweeting that he “sucked”

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

The scene: A teenage girl in a high school group called Youth in Government uses her fancy new tweeting phone to exercise her constitutionally-protected right to call a governor a butthead. (Or, to be more specific, to say that he “sucked” and to create the hashtag #heblowsalot.) Her perceptive abilities proved accurate, when said Gov. Sam Brownback reveals that he uses taxpayer dollars to gather evidence that teenagers are making fun of him on Twitter, and to use that evidence to get them in trouble at school. Because the butthead quotient in this story wasn’t high enough already, the school responded to Brownback’s sniveling about adolescents with political opinions by attempting to force the teenage girl in question to write a letter of apology to Gov. Brownback. The teenager in question, Emma Sullivan, 18, responded by demonstrating her superior understanding of the basic principles of democracy by refusing, and instead causing the easily perturbed governor even more consternation by asking for a sit-down meeting to ask direct questions of the governor, furthering demonstrating no doubt to him that everything started to go wrong with this country when they let women have the vote.

I suppose it’s not that big a surprise that someone like Brownback, who has a strong belief that women should not be in control of their own ladyparts, would also find the notion that teenage girls have the legal right to make fun of him deeply threatening. First he comes for your abortions, then your contraception, and next any fancy electronic devices that could be used to register displeasure with dudely authority figures. The freakout over a teenage girl having a less-than-flattering opinion of him was also predictable if you look at Brownback’s long history with the C Street Family, a religious-political group that specifically promotes patriarchy and disdains the idea of women holding political power. (Though they have been known to make exceptions for the occasional woman who has economic goals in common with them.) To a large extent, Brownback has created a bubble around him that has a pleasing 19th-century cast to it, where young people and women knew their place, and men of privilege are protected from the opinions of those who are most subject to social control. No wonder a juvenile bit of tweetage caused such an oversized reaction.

Sullivan has responded to this situation with a decent amount of restraint on the adolescent clumsiness, calling Brownback’s bluff (his office claims to merely be policing her tone and not her content, as if tone didn’t also enjoy the protections of the First Amendment) by asking for a respectful dialogue where she addresses her criticisms of his office for cutting arts funding in Kansas. (Unsurprising again. The arts, like Twitter, have an unruly tendency to release unauthorized opinions into the public view.) Brownback has not responded. I hope that Sullivan’s experience with all this only strengthens her commitment to politics, since her unwillingness to back down when a basic right is threatened is exactly the attitude you need to have to preserve it.