Utah’s state school board voted Thursday to loosen the requirements for members posting on social media — a move that comes even as one prominent member is being investigated for controversial comments made on her Facebook page.
Under the changed rules, members can now share their opinions online without any disclaimers. Previously, they had to note that their views were personal and didn’t represent the official stance of the Utah State Board of Education.
Natalie Cline, the member whose posts have continually caused concern and who prompted the requirement, said having to explicitly state that she was sharing her own beliefs when posting felt “oppressive, tyrannical.”
“I’m starting to understand what it feels like to live in a communist country,” she declared during the board’s discussion. “We are quickly turning to something very un-American.”
The board is made up of 15 elected members who oversee public education throughout the state. Those members agree to uphold a set of bylaws, which include disclosing conflicts of interest and posting or commenting on social media in “an ethical and civil manner.”
The additional requirement to include the disclaimer in online posts was added about two years ago, shortly after Cline first joined the board and her comments started drawing complaints.
But even with stating that her comments were “not an official USBE Board position,” the Republican firebrand has continued to stir concerns.
Less than a month ago, several members of the community reported Cline’s July 4 Facebook post to the board’s hotline. In that, Cline had written that schools are “complicit in the grooming of children for sex trafficking.”
She also said they have been “aiding and abetting this evil practice by giving kids easy access to explicit, unnatural, and twisted sexual content and brainwashing them into queer, gender bending ideologies.”
Several teachers have spoken out against the post, calling it hurtful and inaccurate.
The board’s leadership issued a statement then, distancing itself from Cline and saying it “strongly disapproves” of the post. But the board hasn’t taken action to censure Cline on the latest post (that’s the only action it can take to reprimand her). An investigation remained open, though, as of Thursday afternoon into whether Cline violated her oath of office.
Kelsey James, the spokesperson for the board, has said that members are allowed to express their thoughts freely as private citizens.
And that’s the same approach that the majority of the board took Tuesday in repealing the rule for the disclaimer, with some saying it violated the First Amendment for free speech.
Jennie Earl, who is also a conservative member of the board, called the disclaimer “compelled speech” that is being forced on elected officials. And she said it has a chilling effect that stops those officials from sharing information and views with their constituents.
“It’s like we’re babysitting each other,” she said. “We’re adults. … I think it’s offensive.”
Molly Hart, also Republican, called the disclaimer unnecessary and said no other elected offices in Utah require a statement like that on social media. State lawmakers post what they want without any message before their comments, she said, and state school board members should be able to do the same.
Like Earl, she too said she found it “infantilizing.” And she said it’s often stopped her from posting online.
Joseph Kerry, who is conservative as well, said he felt the requirement was not “applied uniformly” and was purposefully being used to censure Cline. “I just don’t think that’s fair,” he added.
Kerry also said he’s concerned that board members and even candidates running for the board feel like they aren’t allowed to speak openly about their views and platforms. Voters need to know their stances, he noted.
“We don’t want elected officials afraid to post and share,” Kerry said.
Because the vote was to change a bylaw, it had to be approved by two-thirds of the board. It passed with just enough support on a 10-5 vote, largely along party lines.
Carol Barlow Lear, a Democrat, said she sees the disclaimer as a nod to transparency and helpful to constituents who are trying to parse where certain members stand and what the board rules.
“I think it’s really important that an individual board member is clear to a fault that they’re speaking as an individual instead of as the board,” she said.
She was joined by Cindy Davis, who is Republican, who argued that that disclaimer didn’t regulate what a board member could say after it — so it didn’t hamper their speech.
Now without those disclaimers, she added, she hopes that the board will do more to communicate with all Utahns about its positions and what measures it passes and to correct misinformation when needed.
Randy Boothe, a Republican board member, said even without the disclaimer board members should strive to model “honesty, kindness, civility.”
Cline nodded as he spoke. She had said the board should not be “speech police” and that constituents find it “rare and refreshing” when elected officials openly speak their minds. Ultimately, she said, if people don’t like what a board member says, they can vote them out.
At the start of the board meeting Thursday morning, several individuals spoke during a raucous public comment period in support of Cline.
Monica Wilbur said: “It is unconstitutional for you to seek to silence Natalie’s voice to represent her district and freely speak the truth. The Constitution doesn’t say that the right to free speech belongs to everyone but Natalie Cline.”
She ended by shouting, “May God bless Natalie Cline.”
Several members there to rally behind Cline wore T-shirts that said, “#FamiliesAgainstGrooming,” in reference to her recent Facebook post, and “WeStandWithNatalie.” The room was filled with about 50 people. Another 140 listened online.
Willie Johnson also spoke in favor of Cline, who has been an advocate for removing what she and other conservative parents have seen as inappropriate books from school libraries. Those titles have largely focused on the LGBTQ community.
Johnson said he feels Cline has been “persecuted” for standing up for what’s right. He then suggested the board members who don’t stand with her and stand against explicit books need an exorcism.
“Lucifer, in the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to come out of them,” he yelled at the board members.
Three other moms added that Cline is a “truth teller” and a “hero.”
Briawna Hugh was one of two educators who spoke against Cline. As an English teacher, Hugh said she’s worried about Cline’s claims.
“I’m very concerned about some of the comments made by members of your board branding teachers as groomers and complicit with sex trafficking,” she said. “It’s a criminal accusation.”
Hugh said teachers are already drowning under the workload and expectations. Those kind of partisan attacks, she added, breed mistrust and add to burnout.
“When the board fails to take a stand and speak out against these allegations, your silence is complicit,” she added.
The board has issued three statements admonishing Cline’s comments, including the most recent one about her “grooming” accusations. The board also previously has once censured Cline, in fall 2021 — marking the first time state school board leadership has ever reprimanded a member.
That came after Cline posted a message critical of LGBTQ students that led some of her followers to threaten violence.
Before that, Cline shared the name of a teacher she believed was instructing students that “communism is better than our form of government.” Several responded by calling on social media for the teacher to be fired and urging the teacher to leave the country. Some also sent the teacher threats via direct messages, according to the Jordan School District, which also said at the time that Cline’s allegations about the educator were not true.
Cline won her seat in November 2020, the first partisan elections for the board, by a margin of 38 percentage points. Terms on the board are for four years, meaning she isn’t up for reelection until fall 2024.
In the time she has served, there have been more than 80 complaints filed against Cline.