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Lawmaker’s post spurs debate on free speech

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Maya Shimizu Harris with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

GOP committee nixes push to seek lawmaker’s expulsion
CASPER — The Wyoming Republican Party was united in condemning Laramie Democrat Rep. Karlee Provenza for posting a meme concerning transgender people that was criticized for its violent overtones. 
But Republican leaders were split on Saturday over whether or not the party should urge disciplinary action against Provenza for posting the meme, with some passionately arguing that doing so could create a precedent for the infringement on free speech — a right that is strongly emphasized in the party. 
 
The meme, which the House Minority Whip shared last month on Instagram and Facebook in recognition of the Transgender Day of Visibility, depicts an older woman pointing a scoped rifle with the caption “Auntie Fa Says protect trans folks against fascists and bigots!” The woman is wearing the colors of the transgender flag. 
 
Provenza’s post was criticized for its seeming reference to Antifa — the left-wing anti-fascist political movement — as well as its violent overtones and timing (Provenza made the post less than a week after a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee). 
 
Wyoming GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne, who was reelected on Saturday, sent a letter on behalf of the Wyoming Republican Party to speaker of the House Albert Sommers last month urging him to strip Provenza of her committee assignments over the meme. 
 
While defending the Second Amendment rights of LGBTQ people, Provenza apologized multiple times for her post. 
 
“We have a nation that is constantly hurting, and my failure to recognize how my words could be used to hurt people is something that I am truly sorry for,” she wrote in a letter to her House colleagues last month. 
 
On Saturday, the Wyoming Republican Party State Central Committee passed a resolution in a voice vote encouraging voters to oust Provenza over the meme controversy. 
 
The original resolution, which was brought by the Lincoln County GOP, urged Wyoming House leadership to “take further disciplinary action up to and including [Provenza’s] expulsion from the Wyoming House of Representatives.” 
 
But the GOP State Central Committee nixed this portion of the resolution after a debate among the Republican leaders over where to draw the line for free speech. 
 
Jeff Pomeroy and Mark Armstrong, the state committeemen for the Washakie and Albany County GOPs, respectively, argued that Provenza’s post crossed the line because they considered it to be a “call to violence.” 
“Where do we draw a line and say there’s a responsibility for what you said?” Pomeroy questioned. “You may have the freedom to say it, but there’s gonna be repercussions because of the responsibility of being a civilized society.” 
 

 
But others argued vehemently against the original resolution’s language because of free speech considerations. 
 
“First of all, let me say that what this representative said is absolutely deplorable. I highly condemned it. I think it was irresponsible,” Campbell County GOP Chairman and former lawmaker Scott Clem said. 
 
He noted, however, that freedom of speech is “a fundamental right” under the U.S. and Wyoming constitutions and mentioned that Sen. Troy McKeown, a state lawmaker from his county, also posted a meme in 2021 that some said suggested violence. McKeown wasn’t disciplined for doing so.
 
 “I had no issue with it,” Clem said of McKeown’s post. “Now, I know there were many others that did have an issue with it. No disciplinary action was taken, nor do I think it should have been.” 
 
While he “highly” recommended that voters not reelect Provenza, whom he described as “not fit for the Legislature,” Clem said he doesn’t believe it’s right for the GOP State Central Committee to urge disciplinary action against her for the views she expressed on social media. 
 
Goshen County GOP State Committeeman Hugh Hageman also spoke strongly against the resolution as it was originally written. 
 
“I rise against this resolution because I am a liberty guy. I’m gonna remain a liberty guy. It’s gonna be liberty for all, it’s gonna be liberty for everyone,” Hageman said, arguing that if someone gets hurt as a result of speech, the affected person can take the matter to court. “I don’t want to hear where to draw the line. I’m not going to draw the line. Free speech is free speech.” 
 
Sommers also cited free speech considerations in his letter announcing that he had dismissed complaints that had been filed against Provenza over the meme, writing that it’s “imperative to remember that political expression is protected speech” under the U.S. Constitution. 
 
“With this constitutional right also comes personal responsibility. We must remember that even constitutionally protected actions have the potential to deeply hurt others. Free speech is at times a messy thing,” Sommers wrote. 
 
Citing the First Amendment, some Republicans agreed with Sommers’ decision. 
 
Shortly after Sommers announced that he would not discipline Provenza for posting the meme, Wyoming Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, said on social media that though she “vehemently disagreed” with Provenza’s messaging, she thought Sommers had taken the right action. 
 
“Do we want to set a precedent of kicking Representatives out of the Legislature for social media posts? #1stAmendment,” Ward wrote. 
 
Goshen County GOP Chairman Kirk Haas brought the amendment to the resolution on Saturday that deleted the portion asking House leadership to take disciplinary action against Provenza and instead urges voters to oust her in the next election. 
 
“I think we’ve had excellent statements here about freedom of speech. This allows the state party to address it as a central committee,” Haas said of the amendment. “I think it’s important that we do address it.”
 
This story was published on May 9, 2023. 

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