3 years of controversy, complaints preceded latest public outcry against Natalie Cline

From accusing schools of “grooming” kids to inciting violence against a teacher, Cline has repeatedly drawn attention since she was first elected.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah school board member Natalie Cline speaks on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023. Cline has repeatedly drawn attention since she was elected to the Utah State Board of Education in November 2020.

In the history of Utah’s state school board, no member has drawn more controversy and attention than Natalie Cline.

The Republican firebrand elected in November 2020 has had a chaotic three years in the position — with a reputation for her opinions frequently posted on her Facebook page.

Her first contentious social media post came less than a month into her tenure and mocked LGBTQ+ students. Since then, she’s been called out for inciting violence against a teacher, suggesting schools are “complicit in grooming” and fighting against “indoctrination” in education.

She’s the only member of the Utah State Board of Education that has ever been formally reprimanded.

The board’s leaders have issued statements about her about five separate concerns. She’s had more than 200 complaints filed against her. And she’s been called on to resign — including through at least two petitions — more times than can be counted.

It’s unusual for a member of the 15-member body that more typically is known for quietly overseeing public K-12 education in Utah and is charged with supporting students.

Cline’s actions reached a fever pitch this week when she shared the photo of a high school athlete and suggested the minor was transgender. With all of her posts, it’s the first time she’s called out a specific student — and it’s led to an uproar.

Cline has apologized and deleted the post, but not before many of her followers threatened the student and her district had to provide additional security.

Now, leaders across the state are criticizing Cline and some are calling on her to resign. Lawmakers are considering impeachment — which appears to a first for a state school board member in Utah.

Here’s a look at Cline’s history as a public official and what led to this.

October 2020: Cline campaigns for office

In 2020 — after a monumental ruling by the state’s supreme court — Utah went forward with its first-ever partisan races for state school board. Cline filed as a Republican.

In the only debate for the seat, she laid out the platform that she has championed since.

She said schools should not “indoctrinate children with certain theories” of race, including “indoctrinated concepts of diversity and inclusivity.”

Cline also said she was running for the state school board to protect the “natural family,” which she defines as a mother and father — not an LGBTQ+ partnership. Her main platform on her campaign website at the time was defending parental rights in education and “protecting the innocence of children.”

Her website stated: “Teachers must remember that they are accountable to parents, not the other way around, and parents are ultimately accountable to God.”

Cline’s bio for the GOP convention noted, too, that she has lobbied for Family Watch International. That organization is identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for promoting “anti-LGBT pseudoscience.”

Additionally, Cline said she wanted to abolish standardized testing. And she opposed technology in the classroom, saying students who use computers are “becoming less literate.”

November 2020: Winning election

Cline was elected by a 38-point margin to a four-year term on the board.

Her seat covers the southern part of Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County, what is now called District 9.

January 2021: First controversy

Cline takes office and immediately draws attention with a series of controversial Facebook posts on her public page.

In one, Cline labeled LGBTQ+ students “gender-confused.” In another, she accused educators of trying to “indoctrinate your children” by attending a conference at the Utah Pride Center about accepting all identities in the classroom. “They are after your children’s hearts and minds,” Cline wrote.

She also labeled the Black Lives Matter movement as “indoctrination.” And she suggested that schools are teaching race theory that tells white students they are all biased and always “wrong.” In a comment on Jan. 4, Cline added, “We cannot let it in. Not an inch.”

Cline later warned against school districts hiring equity directors because they will only “search out racism, inequity, and exclusivity within the school” so they can keep their jobs. That, she says, “exacerbates the problem of racism in schools.”

Utah parents and teachers called for her removal. A petition for her ouster had more than 3,400 signatures in less than 24 hours. And several LGBTQ+ groups, the Black Lives Matter chapter for the state, and the NAACP branch over Salt Lake City spoke out against Cline’s remarks.

Cline responded to that by saying on her Facebook page that she was “the latest target of the mob.”

This is the first time the Utah State Board of Education’s leadership issued a statement regarding Cline. It did not condemn her speech, but instead noted that the board has “no legal authority” to remove Cline as an elected official.

February 2021: A second petition

A Murray teacher read a book about a transgender child to her class, which set off a torrent of backlash.

A student had brought “Call Me Max” to school and asked the teacher to read it aloud. It tells the story of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity.

Cline joined in the firestorm, saying it was inappropriate to share “books about gender-confused children.”

Another petition was started for her to resign based on her using that label.

Later, in February 2021: Cline’s post on communism

The leaders of the school board released their second statement, this time distancing themselves from Cline after a social media post where she publicly shared a teacher’s name and the school where she worked.

Cline accused the teacher, without evidence, of instructing students that “communism is better than our form of government.” She also encouraged her followers to share the information and incited them to “take action” against the middle school English teacher.

(Screenshot) Pictured is a post from Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline, attacking a teacher in Jordan School District. Cline originally included the teacher's name but later removed it after facing pushback. The school district has said the allegations are not true.

Several responded by calling for the teacher to be fired, sending the teacher threats via direct message and urging her to leave the country.

Leaders for the Utah Board of Education acknowledged the concerns about the “content and nature” of Cline’s remarks and said they “do not reflect nor should be construed as the board’s position on any matter.”

“Just trying to stop the indoctrination, protect the kids in the class and warn parents what is going on,” Cline wrote in defense.

Jordan School District, where the teacher worked, responded by saying what Cline alleged was not true.

Leader for the Utah Board of Education acknowledged the concerns about the “content and nature” of Cline’s remarks and said they “do not reflect nor should be construed as the board’s position on any matter.”

June 2021: Cline weighs in on critical race theory

Following a bill passed by the state Legislature amid the uproar over critical race theory, the Utah State Board of Education approved standards to spell out what teachers can and cannot say about racism in the classroom.

Cline repeatedly suggested amendments, arguing that the word “marginalized” shouldn’t be used in the teaching standards because it’s too politically charged. She also urged the board to use the term “varying” instead of “diverse” to describe students’ viewpoints and backgrounds.

August 2021: An anti-LGBTQ+ post

Cline came under fire again for a Facebook post where she was critical of LGBTQ+ students at a Utah high school — which incited some of her followers to threaten violence and the targeted school district to require more security to patrol its campus.

She shared a photo on her Facebook page with a picture of a pride flag in a seminary building, where students who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can take classes during the school day. In her post, Cline showed a welcome sign at the seminary at Layton High School. It read: “If you are LGBTQIA+ welcome to seminary!”

Cline identified the school by name and wrote, “Time to make some phone calls. The world is too much with us.”

Her message followed shortly after an apostle for the LDS Church criticized members of the faith who push back against the teachings on same-sex marriage, urging instead that those in the faith take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend church doctrines.

Cline’s post caught the attention of some members of the faith who are part of the alt-right #DezNat movement. One person shared a screenshot of Cline’s post with the comment: “Time to get out our muskets.”

(Screenshot) Pictured is a social media post, with the original comment from Utah Board of Education member Natalie Cline.

The leaders of the Utah State Board of Education put out their third statement condemning Cline’s words: “The board does not condone rhetoric … that inspires any type of hate speech against students.”

Cline deleted the post. But Davis School District said it had to hire additional officers to patrol around the school she named because of threats.

September 2021: Cline is disciplined

The school board disciplined Cline for the anti-LGBTQ+ post. It is the first official discipline for her actions.

The board’s leadership issued a letter of reprimand, and the full board voted to affirm that action.

It marked the first time the Utah Board of Education has ever taken disciplinary action against a member.

“Since being sworn in as a board member approximately eight months ago, you have engendered controversy, frustration, and anger toward the board, certain schools, certain educators, and certain student populations with statements you have posted on your social media regarding our LGBTQIA+ community,” the letter noted.

April 2022: Cline talks about ‘ideological coup’

Cline spoke at a town hall with Republican delegates — with a candidate who said she wanted to follow in Cline’s footsteps — where she continued to oppose what she’s referred to as indoctrination in education.

“There’s a lot of people who have an agenda for our kids, which translates to an agenda for our nation,” Cline said. “… Our children need rescuing from the cunning, crafty, soul-destroying lies that they are immersed in in our public education system.”

She claimed there is an “ideological coup” happening in schools now with critical race theory and social-emotional learning where children are being pitted against their parents. The purpose, she said, is to “make them more loyal to the state.”

May 2022: Cline’s emails examined

An attorney for the state school board examined whether Cline broke the law — and found no violation — when she used her private email account to discuss board matters and communicate with constituents.

Records showed Cline sent emails from a personal Gmail account. Those include messages about critical race theory with one member of the public and, in another, Cline emailing a law firm about an audit of the state school board.

Those employed by the state of Utah, whether elected or hired, are supposed to use their state-provided email accounts to discuss public matters and talk to residents. The communications via those addresses — both to and from the accounts — are subject to release under the law with public records requests (as are other communications, including text messages).

January 2023: Cline opposes vouchers

The Utah State Board of Education issued a rare statement opposing a $42 million voucher bill that later passed in the Legislature. Cline agreed with that opposition.

She said the bill was “not the proper role of government.”

April 2023: Comments on science

In a committee meeting to discuss science standards, Cline spoke out against accepted teachings in the subject.

She proposed changing the language on how different rocks were formed to “how they may have been formed.” She also proposed adding “scientific theory” or “it is hypothesized that” before anything related to when life first appeared on earth.

And she argued against teaching Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution.” Cline called it “not a fact. It’s just a theory.”

July 2023: Post about ‘grooming’ draws fire

The state school board’s leaders issued another statement about Cline — marking the fourth time they have spoken out against her — after multiple complaints were filed against her for another Facebook post.

The board revealed that, by that point in her tenure, 80 complaints had been filed against Cline. And a formal investigation was opened into the latest of those.

This time Cline had posted on social media that schools are “complicit in the grooming of children for sex trafficking.” In a public post on her Facebook page, she added they are also “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.”

The latter part is a reference to the books about the LGBTQ+ community that she and members of Republican parent groups in Utah have tried to have removed from school libraries for containing material they find inappropriate.

(Screenshot) Pictured is the post that Utah school board member Natalie Cline made on July 4, 2023.

At the end of her post, Cline then included a review of and a photo from the movie “Sound of Freedom,” which has been celebrated in conservative circles for telling the story of Tim Ballard, who has become embattled with several lawsuits accusing him of sex assault and other misconduct.

In a sharp rebuke, leadership of the Utah State Board of Education said it “strongly disapproves” of the recent Facebook post.

“Such an allegation against schools generally is inflammatory, divisive and unfair to Utah’s teachers, who put Utah’s students first every day, and interfere[s] with efforts to provide thoughtful solutions to difficult issues,” wrote the board’s three leaders.

August 2023: Social media rules loosened

Despite concerns about Cline’s rhetoric and the ongoing investigation of her, the school board voted to loosen the requirements for members posting on social media.

Under the changed rules, members are now able to 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.

Cline celebrated the move by saying that 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.”

Several members of the public were at the meeting to rally behind Cline. They wore T-shirts that said, “#FamiliesAgainstGrooming,” in reference to her recent Facebook post, and “WeStandWithNatalie.”

Later, in August 2023: Cleared in investigation

Cline is cleared of wrongdoing in three investigations, including the one on her comment about “grooming.”

The board’s review found no violations. And leaders 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.”

In addition to the “grooming” comment, Cline was also reviewed for allegedly questioning the gender identity of a school board staff member — calling that employee out by name and openly joking about how they dressed during a public presentation — and for her participation in a video done with a nonprofit group.

September 2023: Speaking out on restrooms

Cline spoke at a Jordan School District meeting in opposition to the policy there allowing transgender students to use the restrooms that match their gender identity.

“There are efforts underway to force a radical new interpretation of Title IX that is already undoing the physical protections put in place for ‘biological girls,’” Cline said. “This school’s non-policy policy forces girls who are not comfortable sharing their bathroom with boys to feel like they are somehow wrong or guilty for feeling this way. This is psychologically abusive to our girls.”

She added: “It is immoral for the [school district] to attempt to condition girls to override their natural protective instincts in order to accommodate boys in their private spaces,” Cline said.

The state has since passed legislation banning transgender Utahns from using restrooms and locker rooms in government buildings — including in K-12 schools — that don’t align with their sex at birth.

February 2024: Student athlete post prompts talk of impeachment

Cline’s post about a Utah high school athlete has drawn the most uproar yet for the state school board member.

Cline originally shared a flyer with photos of a high school girls’ basketball team in Salt Lake County. On her public Facebook page, she wrote “girls’ basketball” — implying that one of the players was not female and suggesting she shouldn’t be able to play.

That incited violence among her followers, many of whom responded in the comments threatening the girl, calling her vulgar names and identifying her and her school. Granite School District said it’s had to provide security for the student because of the responses.

The girl is not transgender, according to Equality Utah, which Cline later acknowledged after deleting the post and sharing an apology. But the school board member continued to comment on the girl’s body in that, saying she “does have a larger build.”

Since then, the governor and lieutenant governor issued a rare joint statement calling out the elected official’s “unconscionable behavior” and urging the Utah State Board of Education to take action.

Leaders of the board issued their fifth statement about Cline since she took office. They promised “prompt action.” They also noted that there have been at least 180 complaints filed against Cline related to the athlete post.

They reiterated, though, that they have “no power or authority to unseat an elected official.” Instead, members of the board can be censured, or the board can vote to formally disapprove of her comments. It would have to meet in a closed executive session to do so.

In response to that, state lawmakers said they’re now considering impeaching Cline — which they have the authority to do. The Utah House issued a statement condemning her, which starts the process.

Impeachment requires the Utah House to draw up articles against Cline and would require, by law, that she had committed “high crimes, misdemeanors or malfeasance in office.” She would then have to be tried in the state Senate.

Cline has not said anything publicly since the fallout over the post started. She has currently filed to run for re-election, with her term up this year. She faces Amanda B. Bollinger, who is running as a Republican and is a longtime administrator in Jordan School District; the two will face off in the party’s primary. Will Shiflett, who oversees a business program at Salt Lake Community College, has filed as the sole Democrat in the race.

Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson have both said they’ve donated to Bollinger’s campaign.