If a government office is truly interested in initiating dialogue with a person who has criticized or commented on their policies or office, they should contact that person, ask what their concerns are, and then ask what they would suggest doing to change them. Not only does this allow for the government to make a direct connection with the people it is leading, it also shows that the administration respects the opinions of its constituents.
The course of action taken by Brownback’s office concerning Sullivans’s tweet was unacceptable. Emailing an SMSD administrator with no discernible call for action was an inappropriate and ineffective way to handle a teenager’s criticism. The email from one of Gov. Brownback’s assistants, Niomi Burget, to SMSD Youth In Government coordinator Deborah Brown about Sullivan’s tweet simply said: “I would like to share with you a message that was brought to our attention.” If the office had instead asked to talk to Sullivan directly and asked why she tweeted the way she did, the situation could have been resolved in a much less confrontational, media-frenetic manner. Brownback’s acknowledgement of the fact that his office “overreacted” to Sullivan’s tweet hopefully signifies that his office will take a more constructive approach to criticism or comments in the future.
Policy EGAEA-R, SMSD’s current policy concerning computer usage and internet safety, does not specifically cover the use of social media by students. It seems like the precautionary measures taken by the district to limit social media access-blocking social media sites, prohibiting cell phone use in class—would negate the need for a policy on its use, but that is not the case. Sullivan’s tweet showed just how easy it is to use social media during a school-sponsored event or even school itself. A social media policy is a much-needed addition to the Administrative Guidelines and Procedures booklet.
The new policy should only apply to social media posts that are deemed unprotected free speech (e.g. defamation, speech that causes a substantial and material disruption, instigating a riot) that happens during school or a school-sponsored event. For example, if a student posted on their Facebook during school, “I am going to kill Daniel Simpson tomorrow, I hate him so much,” the school should take action. This statement, which is hate speech (speech that disparages a person based on race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) and could cause Daniel to miss school due to fear of being hurt, is not protected by the First Amendment. Disciplinary measures would be acceptable. The school should also be able to deal with cyber-bullying that affects students in the same way if the bullying can be argued as hate speech .
Had a policy similar to the one above been in place at the time of Sullivan’s tweet, SMSD could have simply stated, “Emma’s tweet, although coarsely worded, was an expression of protected free speech. Therefore, as our policy states, it does not warrant any school disciplinary action.”
This being said, just because students have the right to speak out doesn’t necessarily mean that they are exempt from all rules of politeness and class. Decorum is too often brushed to the side when voicing opinions today. Brownback said in his apology for his staff’s overreaction to Sullivan’s tweet, “freedom of speech is one of our most treasured freedoms.” This treasure is not something to be wasted. Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri pointed out in her Nov. 28 blog concerning Sullivan’s tweet: “The race is always to the loudest, the rudest, the most unapologetic, the least grammatical.” It’s a sad truth in today’s world, but it can be combated. The ability to support your opinion is much more important than the opinion itself. Communication and publication in the 21st century may be faster and more publicly accessible, but that doesn’t mean our words need to be less structured and supported.
Social media isn’t going anywhere, and for that reason we need to learn how to use it and respond to it appropriately. The government needs to be able to handle criticism via social media sites, schools need to be able to mediate social media-based conflicts, and students must remember to use social media in a respectful manner.
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