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Posted at 05:28 PM ET, 11/28/2011

Teenager Emma Sullivan and Sam Brownback’s insulting interlude

“just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.”

Thus ran the tweet shot ‘round the world, from Kansas teenager Emma Sullivan after her class visited Brownback’s office (where she did not, in fact, tell him in person that he sucked.) The tweet, a joke, was not supposed to go beyond her friends. But the Internet being the Internet, that is exactly what it did.

It went straight to Governor Brownback’s office, where his staff avidly track hashtags like #brownback, #ksgop and “#heblowsalot.”

But I assume she will next time.

No one has come out of this interaction looking better. Not the Brownback office, which contacted Sullivan’s principal to demand a written apology. Not Sullivan, who refused to provide one. Not the Internet, where 10,000 people just started following Sullivan on Twitter in solidarity with free speech, or something.

It is incredible how often free speech is invoked in defense of what is simply rudeness. 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.

The Bill of Rights endows us with many cherished freedoms. But it doesn’t give us an excuse for bad behavior. Just because I am constitutionally protected from being forced to quarter troops doesn’t mean that if my cousin’s Marine husband visits me for Thanksgiving, I can pelt him with canned goods and scream, “Get out! I know my rights!” Not because the Constitution restricts that somewhere. But because it ain’t etiquette.

The reason we have so few clear stated rules of behavior is that we have so many rules that go unstated. 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, and using the hashtag “heblowsalot.”

Sure, it’s protected by the Constitution. But that doesn’t make it any less stupid.

And fortunately for Sullivan, in this case one stupid action provoked a mind-numbingly disproportionate opposite overreaction. Brownback’s office complained to her pricipal. Are the governor’s people familiar with the Internet? The Internet is a minefield of people who insult you using suction-related verbs. Just Google me!

School is one situation where you do not have unlimited rights to free speech. Schools do have the ability to curtail the expression of their students – by imposing uniforms or by instituting language codes (no cursing at recess) or demanding that students address teachers by their last names, not hand-crafted monikers like BIG NIZZLE and GRANNYPANTS. That isn’t because schools are horrid, Draconian institutions. It’s because they believe certain rules make life more pleasant for everyone.

But there is always an uncomfortable interaction between students’ expression outside class and inside it. You can’t make lip farts and shout random obscenities at your physics teacher, but after school you may be on some sort of rigorous extracurricular lip-farting and obscenity-shouting team that requires this. Who knows! The college admissions process is tough these days!

Often people post things on their Facebooks or Livejournals (do people still have those?) and Twitter accounts that are at the least unflattering and at the worst vaguely threatening to their teachers. “I hope Mr. Brunswick dies in a fire with all eight of his cats! #heblowsalot” is certainly an unfortunate choice of words, but is it a threat? Does this mean someone ought to be punished?

Generally not.

The trouble with Generation Y is that we have all the private, person-to-person conversations that we don’t want our teachers to know about in public, on the Internet, where they are easily searched by Brownback staffers. It is an uncomfortable condition of growing up with iPhones.

Did Brownback’s office overreact? Is SOPA overkill? Are single men with cats invariably a little, well, off? Was it a mistake to title my pubic Google profile Turd Bargleface?We know the answer. And yet.

Must she apologize? Of course not. Should she? I would.

If not for disagreeing – it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, as someone once said – then at least for the capitalization. Sure, it was a joke. Sure, it wasn’t meant for him. But now that everyone’s heard it, it’s hard to deny it was rude.

But now instead, the Internet has hoisted her on its shoulders for failing to apologize, lauded her as a champion of free speech, and started following her. This will do little to encourage civility. And that’s what I’m worried about.

The ability to be rude with impunity is not a recent development. When one Congressman beat another with a cane in the 1800s, people mailed him gold-headed canes to offer encouragement — but shortly thereafter the Civil War exploded. But now we don’t even have to spend money on cane postage. We have the Internet, and all you have to do is say you insulted someone and everyone rallies around you.

“Today I was super polite to Sam Brownback,” absolutely no one tweets, ever. Why bother? The race is always to the loudest, the rudest, the most unapologetic, the least grammatical. For the most part, even our finest invective goes unnoticed. Every day on Twitter thousands upon thousands of people tweet thousands upon thousands of 140-character thoughts, or things resembling thoughts. People seldom notice any of these specific thoughts. The Internet is like a loud room that suddenly goes quiet — and woe to the last phrase that echoes in the silence. It’ll inspire a discussion like this.

I’m glad the Brownback office apologized for their overreaction. I’m sorry that seems to be the only apology forthcoming. It might not earn Sullivan more followers. But it would earn her my respect.

By  |  05:28 PM ET, 11/28/2011

 
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