CHEYENNE — Members of Wyoming House of Representatives leadership said they stand with Speaker Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, and his decision to dismiss complaints against a fellow representative for social media posts made at the end of March.
Sommers announced Wednesday that while he personally found the posts by Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, to be inappropriate and uncivil conduct for a lawmaker, he had to make his decision based on the definition of misconduct under the Wyoming Legislature’s ethics rules and “the protections afforded to legislators under the First Amendment.”
He utilized the analysis by the Wyoming Legislative Service Office that found it didn’t fall under the scope of legislative duties or other violations, and his philosophy of showing grace in difficult moments.
“During the Easter season, I am particularly reminded of the importance of compassion for one another,” he concluded in his statement. “In coming to this decision, I was guided by my personal belief in the rule of law and the traditions of the Wyoming Legislature, not what may be politically expedient.”
Provenza was provided with a formal letter of reprimand from the House Speaker, and she issued a written letter of apology to her legislative colleagues. She wasn’t stripped of her legislative committees or provided any other form of punishment, as some stakeholders in Wyoming requested from Sommers following the posts.
Provenza was criticized for sharing a post that originated from an Instagram account called Off Color Decals, which was designed to recognize the Trans Day of Visibility. It featured “an older woman holding at her hip a scoped black rifle with an external magazine,” and the words “Auntie Fa Says Protect Trans Folks Against Fascists & Bigots!”
“While the accusations ascribed to my posts that I support terrorism and intended to incite violence are false, the fallout has brought shame to this body and to the great state of Wyoming — for which I am deeply sorry,” the Albany County lawmaker wrote in her apology. “I accept responsibility for my role in this, and I will do better moving forward.
“Regardless of the intentions behind my post, it has undoubtedly had negative impacts that I regret and for which I feel great remorse.”
The Wyoming GOP called for disciplinary action for what they described as “dangerous actions,” and there was also outcry from the Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
“Not even one week after a radical transgender activist slaughtered 6 Christians, including 3 young children, a Wyoming legislator for HD45 shared a disgusting call for further violence,” the Wyoming Freedom Caucus posted April 2 on Facebook. “The Wyoming Legislature’s House Minority Whip should be ashamed of herself.”
Neither political organization has commented on the decision by Sommers or responded to multiple requests for comment from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
Sommers has received support from other members of House leadership for his approach to the complaints.
“Albert Sommers handled this very professionally,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs. “While I think many of us were appalled and offended by Rep. Provenza’s social media post, Speaker Sommers recognized first that it did not occur as part of her carrying out her legislative duties. As a result, it’s not something that’s subject to the current Joint Rule 22-1 for ethics complaints.”
Stith said by issuing the letter of reprimand, Sommers signaled this kind of conduct is uncivil and doesn’t reflect well on the Wyoming House of Representatives.
“I do appreciate her apology. I appreciate that very much,” he continued. “It’s obvious that Rep. Provenza regrets the action that she did, and I think what we should do is focus on solving the problems that Wyoming faces and try to avoid divisive name calling.”
Similar support was voiced by House Majority Whip Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, who said the House Speaker makes a great effort to handle every disciplinary situation in the most fair and respectful way for everyone involved. He said Sommers demonstrated good leadership in this case.
Western accepted the apology from Provenza and said everyone makes mistakes from time to time. He said dwelling on the issue is not a productive use of time.
“In this cancel-culture world we live in, it’s important, especially when an apology is made, to accept it and to move on,” he told the WTE. “Because we’re all human, that’s just part of life.”
House Majority Floor Leader Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, didn’t comment, but was in attendance at meetings with Provenza and House leadership.
House Minority Floor Leader Mike Yin, D-Jackson, came at the incident with a different perspective, and said the outcry against Minority Whip Provenza was disproportionate to other legislators’ actions. He said it was “in a way that felt more like a political attack, rather than actual concern over the meme that was posted.”
He said he believes if there was a post shared about using Second Amendment rights to defend an individual’s house from attack, it wouldn’t have been considered offensive.
He recognized why Speaker Sommers had to respond, because political outcry does deserve action. He said dismissal of the complaint was appropriate, and agreed with Sommers’ belief it is not his role to police their political speech.
“The ultimate decider of whether any of us have appropriate political speech is voters,” he said. “Now, I think there is a line, like if you start threatening other individuals directly — there’s a concern there. I never considered anything that she posted a threat.
“In fact, all she talked about was using Second Amendment rights to defend people with appropriate force when they are under attack. That’s talking about using the Second Amendment to defend yourself.”
The Wyoming Democratic Party also defended Sommers’ decision, and Chairman Joe Barbuto said it was the correct choice.
“Representative Provenza is a tireless advocate for people and issues that matter and understands, as she said in her statement, the importance of working collaboratively to solve the problems facing our state,” he said in a statement. “Most folks in Wyoming would agree that’s where the focus ought to be as we move forward.”
The scrutiny the Albany County lawmaker’s social media has faced brought into question a larger issue, which is the ethics complaint process and freedom of speech as a public figure.
“Social media has become the preferred platform for political attacks in Wyoming and the Nation,” wrote Sommers. “People and politicians no longer have to come face to face with someone to attack them or make a political point. Behavior on the internet has become beyond the pale at times. Social media can be used to spread misinformation, foster polarization, and aggregate tensions, representing the worst in politics and personal behavior.
“Still, it is imperative to remember that political expression is protected speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 20 of the Wyoming 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.”
Leadership expects the “issue of social media with respect for legislative decorum” will be explored during the interim session by the Management Council’s Legislator Ethics Complaint Procedure Subcommittee.
Stith said it is difficult to balance personal social media accounts with representing themselves as a public figure, but there is a realization that “private social media posts are sort of free and fair game for political discourse.” He is a co-chair of the subcommittee and looks forward to reviewing whether the current rules are robust enough to deal with situations such as these that arise in the Legislature.
“On one hand, it is probably not practical for the leadership of either the House or the Senate to police every legislator’s social media posts,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s not an issue that we can really ignore, either, because it reflects on not just the individual member, but it reflects on all of us.”
He said they want the public to understand they take their role very seriously and are trying to do the work for the people of Wyoming.
Stith still wants to proceed cautiously and adopt rules that are constitutional. But he said there are reasonable restrictions that can be put in place regarding time and manner, or whether the speech presents a danger of inciting violence.
“I certainly would not be in favor of any kind of rule that would infringe upon someone’s First Amendment rights,” he said. “And again, the First Amendment’s there to protect everybody. And so, the free speech rights are important. They are not, however, absolute.”
Yin will sit on the subcommittee alongside Stith and believes their policymaking will determine the line. He said the right sphere to debate issues is in the public sphere, and not within the complaint process, but they will have to figure out how much they should control each of their members’ speech versus how much the voters should decide what speech is appropriate.
He placed an emphasis on the freedom of speech being the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
“It has to rise to a very high threshold for us as a Legislature to say that we need to provide some sort of limit to that,” Yin said. “For us to constrain your First Amendment right, there has to be a very good reason.”