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The Freedom to Tweet: Not Applicable in Thailand or Kansas

As regular visitors to Cringeville know, I'm a big fan of freedom of speech. The First Amendment is far and away my favorite (though I'm also partial to the 4th, 13th, 15th, and 21st). So I'm especially glad I don't live in Thailand or Kansas, where what you say or do on cellphones and social networks can land you in hot water -- or a prison cell.

Let's take Thailand first. Last week, a retired truck driver was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sending four text messages that were judged insulting to the Thai monarchy. We don't know what messages 61-year-old Ampon Tangnoppakul sent -- in part because the mere act of repeating them would expose reporters to prosecution.

He alleges he didn't send any messages, he does not even know how to text, and his phone was in the repair shop at the time the texts were sent. No matter -- any treatment deemed less than reverent to 83-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his bride Queen Sirikit can earn you five years per offense.

It gets worse. If someone else makes a disparaging remark about the King and Queen on Facebook, and you click that ubiquitous Like button, you can plan to spend between 3 and 15 years in a dingy Bangkok dungeon. At least, according to Russian news site RT.com, which claims to be quoting the Thai Minister of Information.

It's good that sort of thing can't happen here, right? Well, allow me to introduce you to Sam Brownback's Kansas. Last week, 18-year-old high school senior Emma Sullivan took part in a Youth in Government field trip to the Kansas state capitol. As a joke to one of her friends, she sent the following tweet:

Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot

Sullivan didn't actually make any comments to Brownback. But that didn't stop school officials from hauling her to the principal's office and demanding that she apologize to the governor.

But Emma refused, God love her, telling CNN the following:

At this time, I do not think an apology would be a sincere thing for me to do....The issue is relevant and, if anything, is a starting point of dialog with the governor about his policies and how our First Amendment rights can be taken away....I hope that the governor realizes the power of the people and how people can make things happen. I also hope he will spend his time doing more productive things.

Sullivan's tweet got shot round the world; "#heblowsalot" became a Twitter meme, and her story garnered national headlines. Her Twitter following has grown from 65 to more than 9,000 as I write this. (The @govsambrownback account only has 3,200.) After all of that bad publicity, the Shawnee Mission School District backed down and belatedly recognized Sullivan's right to free speech.

What this shows, though, is the only thing keeping similar censorship from happening here is the power of social media to spread stories before school officials can keep them squelched. If Sullivan had made the comment to a friend, and it was overheard by a school official, would anyone else have known? She'd be busy apologizing or getting expelled at this moment.

Chalk one up for Twitter and the First Amendment. And thank God we're not in Thailand any more, Toto.

What's your favorite amendment and why? Cast your vote below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "The freedom to tweet: Not applicable in Thailand or in Kansas," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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