From Kan. teen Sullivan to TV’s Questlove, First Amendment no defense for rudeness

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So, where in the First Amendment does it say: “You might not have much — if anything — to say; you might not even really believe what you’re saying, but you are to be congratulated all the same for saying it — for saying it anywhere, anytime, especially if it’s rude, puerile and really, really annoying?” Ask Emma Sullivan.

Last week, the suburban Kansas City, Kan., high school student traveled with her Youth in Government group to the state capital in Topeka for an event with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. During the visit, Emma sent a tweet that read: “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” She hadn’t. But a Brownback staffer saw the tweet, and told Emma’s school. The principal assigned her a punishment of writing an apology note to the governor, and to the Youth in Government leaders that her behavior embarrassed.

Simple, right? You figure the young woman will grudgingly write the apologies and maybe, possibly, figure out that she should be more careful about what she puts online. A valuable lesson learned? Nah. Not so much.

Emma’s parents, quite naturally, were upset about the incident. Quite unnaturally, they weren’t upset because their daughter was rude. They were angry because the school wanted to make her apologize.

The family took their story to the media, and over the weekend, Emma became national news. Her Twitter followers ballooned from fewer than 100 to more than 3,000, and — in a truly dumbfounding national spectacle — pundits from the lowliest blogger to Pulitzer Prize winners poured out their support for her.

Emma, keep in mind, didn’t criticize Mr. Brownback’s policies — many of which might deserve it. The sum total of her critique was that the governor “sucks” and “blows” — hard to do simultaneously, one would guess. Yet, this young woman, whose contribution to expressive freedom amounted to the digital equivalent of taunts scrawled on a bathroom wall, became a free-speech cause celebre overnight.

Steve Rose, writing in the hometown Kansas City Star, let loose a screed typical of the absurdly hyperbolic responses that flowed in. Mr. Rose ludicrously compared Mr. Brownback to George Orwell’s Big Brother. Who knew Winston Smith tweeted? Leonard Pitts Jr., meanwhile, demonstrating an astounding ignorance of social media, declared it “astonishing” that Mr. Brownback’s office would engage in an utterly run-of-the-mill practice like tracking their mentions on Twitter and Facebook.

By Sunday, with much of the country behind her, Emma decided she wouldn’t be apologizing after all. OK, fine. Whatever. So the kid doesn’t write the letters. She gets suspended for a day, and the incident goes down on her permanent record. Case closed, right? Wrong. She won’t be punished.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder, Mr. Brownback said he was sorry. Yes, on Monday the governor’s office issued a statement apologizing to their teen visitor for what they said was an overreaction by the staff. While a politically expedient move, surely, it’s hard to fathom any moral logic behind apologizing to someone who just insulted you. Apologizing for, in effect, an invasion of privacy by having the temerity to read something that’s been posted on the Internet.

Let’s not pick on Emma too much. So, she acted like a high school kid. That’s because she is one. But what about all the adults around her who are guilty of the same things? Bad manners masquerading as political expression is one pop culture fad that’s clearly not confined just to high schools.

Last week, for example, presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann was invited to be a guest on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” The house band, the Roots, played a song called “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” as she walked on stage. When a stink ensued, the musician responsible for picking the song, who goes by “Questlove,” issued a statement through the network saying he didn’t mean to hurt Mrs. Bachmann’s feelings. “That was not my intention,” he said.

Then what was, exactly? From a distance at least, it looks like his intention, to the extent that he even had one, was chiefly to make himself look rebellious. What’s significant, then, is not only the rudeness of the stunt but the utter lack of conviction behind it. The moment Questlove’s childish gesture of rebellion caused a stir, he caved immediately.

What about the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street protesters? In Washington, D.C., they blocked a busy intersection and harassed anyone with a car they deemed luxurious. In New York, they pounded drums deep into the night, infuriating even those sympathetic to their cause.

And conservatives — don’t be too quick to assume you’ve earned that self-satisfied smile that’s spreading across your face. Purportedly patriotic NASCAR fans shamed themselves recently when the first lady was introduced before the season’s last race and was greeted by boos from the crowd.

So here we find ourselves, in a culture where parents celebrate their children for being rude, and pundits can’t comprehend that having the right to say something doesn’t automatically make it right to say. In a culture that’s missing the whole point about manners: Decorum and civility don’t exist to stifle debate. They serve to foster it, by giving us a context to communicate and disagree respectfully. As opposed to, say, settling our disputes with pistols at dawn.

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