Utah state school board member Natalie Cline has been cleared of wrongdoing in three investigations into her conduct — including a highly criticized Facebook comment where she accused teachers of being “complicit in the grooming of children.”
The Utah State Board of Education announced late Monday that it has concluded its reviews of Cline, which were based on a total of 49 public complaints filed against her on the three issues, and found no violations. As such, the board said it will not take any action to reprimand or censure the embattled right-wing member.
The board released a statement saying it “acknowledges that its members have the right to speak under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, including controversial speech on policy issues and speech that is critical of the government.”
But even though the board didn’t find violations, it stated that its members should hold themselves to a higher standard as elected officials.
“The board also expects members to follow its bylaws and use civility and accuracy in communication,” the statement said.
It’s a small rebuke that comes after many have called for action against Cline over the two years since she was first elected to the 15-member body that oversees public K-12 education in Utah. Her first controversial social media posts came less than a month into her tenure and mocked LGBTQ students and the Black Lives Matter movement.
She has continued to share her opinions online, frequently drawing attention and concern and more than 80 complaints total during her time representing District 9, which covers the southern part of Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County.
Most recently, Cline came under fire for her July 4 post that accused schools of supporting child sex trafficking. In that, she also said teachers 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 educators have spoken out against the post, calling it hurtful and inaccurate. According to numbers shared with The Salt Lake Tribune in a public records request, 47 complaints were filed to the Utah State Board of Education hotline about that message from Cline.
The board’s leadership responded with a statement on July 13, condemning Cline’s accusation as “inflammatory, divisive and unfair.” In the statement Monday concluding the investigation into those comments, the board said that its earlier comments disagreeing with Cline still stand, but that would conclude its response to her post.
Cline declined to comment to The Tribune when initially asked for comment about the “grooming” post. She also did not respond Monday about being cleared.
Her last Facebook post was on July 18, where she prematurely announced that the investigation into her actions was over. In that, she called the statement from board leaders “defamatory” and “ill-advised.”
“This communication and others,” she said, “were issued with the effect of intimidating me into silence. … It has fueled a media storm in which my personal character is being subjected to gross misrepresentation. This is becoming an assaultive pattern on my First Amendment speech rights.”
But the board quickly countered with another statement that the findings at that point, which Cline said cleared her, were only based on the “preliminary analysis.” The board said a more in-depth investigation led by legal counsel was still underway then.
The results of that closer analysis is what were released Monday — and still ultimately exculpated Cline.
“USBE regrets that inaccurate statements regarding the investigation and preliminary analysis in this matter during the confidential investigation led to premature conclusions and speculation regarding board action,” the board said in its statement.
The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, released a statement Tuesday, saying the organization is “deeply trouble by USBE’s failure to find her toxic words in violation of its standards and its unwillingness to take action to reprimand or censure Cline.”
UEA President Renee Pinkney said Cline undermined teachers and the work they do with baseless accusations. She called on Cline to acknowledge the harm caused and to apologize.
“I am horrified that an elected official entrusted with overseeing education policy in our state would blatantly disregard teachers’ tireless efforts and intentionally create an environment of mistrust and hostility detrimental to the educational process,” President Pinkney said.
The second investigation
The second recent investigation into Cline’s conduct was prompted by another complaint filed to the board’s hotline.
The individual said they were attending a presentation by Cline held at the Taylorsville Library. There, Cline allegedly questioned the gender identity of a school board staff member, calling that employee out by name and openly joking about how they dressed.
The presentation was part of Cline’s work with Higher Ground, a conservative group that pushes for “faith, family and freedom.” Cline also posted her early response to the investigations on the organization’s website.
The board said in its statement Monday that it met twice last week to look at that complaint and to “consider possible action.”
But it said there was “a lack of sufficient evidence” to take any action against Cline.
Part of that comes with the video that Higher Ground posted of the presentation by Cline. The part in the video where Cline would have made the comment is not included in the uploaded footage, with a comment from the group saying: “Our camera battery died before the last slide.”
The board said without that, it could not substantiate that Cline made the comments about the staff members.
Still, it noted: “USBE takes seriously any report of improper conduct by its members, including allegations about statements that violate the privacy of staff members.”
The third investigation
A note on the third investigation is not included in the board’s statement released Monday, but a spokesperson said that review has also been concluded without action.
Kelsey James, the spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education, said that complaint “didn’t reach the same level of escalation” as the other two and was not passed on to board leadership for consideration.
James said the complaint involved a “video done by a nonprofit that Cline is involved with.” It was quickly cleared at the first level of review, she added.
87 total complaints against Cline
Since September 2021 — a few months into Cline’s tenure on the board — there have been 87 complaints filed against her, including the recent 49 around the three issues investigated.
The Tribune filed a public records request for those complaints. In total, 62 have been about Cline’s social media posts. Another 17 have been about videos Cline has appeared in, including a documentary against communication and teaching about race in the classroom. Five more were about comments she made during board meetings.
One was about a comment Cline made about race, though it’s unclear where she made that comment.
One individual wrote in her complaint: “Please remove Cline.”
Another said: “I believe this board member is not becoming of what the State of Utah Education Board should stand for, her views and blatant pride in the vitriolic content of what she is sharing needs to be addressed immediately as it is harmful to the community and students in which she should be supporting and have best interests in.”
Together, those complaints have resulted in 22 reviews of Cline’s conduct.
Prior to its most recent statement on Cline’s “grooming” post, the board’s leadership has previously issued two statements admonishing Cline’s comments.
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.
According to the complaints reviewed by The Tribune, Cline has also called out two other teachers by name, accusing one in Lehi of “grooming” and another in Clearfield of “unethical” grading. Those also appear to be unfounded.
But even with the continued outcry over Cline’s post — and several petitions calling for her to be removed or for her to voluntarily step down — the board has repeatedly said it does not have the power to unseat Cline, as an elected official. Only voters can do that, in the next election.
And last week, in a 10-5 vote, the Republican-majority school board moved to loosen its social media rules for members. It previously required that board members state before sharing an opinion online that their view didn’t represent that of the full board.
That requirement was put in place two years ago, spurred by concerns over Cline’s first posts as a board member.
When it was lifted, Cline celebrated, saying 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. Several supporters of Cline came to defend her at the meeting, too.