Legislature censures — doesn’t impeach — Utah school board member Natalie Cline

The family of a student targeted by Cline told House Speaker Mike Schultz they wanted Cline to be impeached.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, hold a news conference to address the Natalie Cline situation at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

The Utah Legislature voted Thursday to censure embattled Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline, who falsely suggested on social media that a high school athlete was transgender, despite the student’s parents requesting that the Legislature impeach Cline.

Titled “House Concurrent Resolution Condemning and Censuring State School Board Member Natalie Cline,” the resolution details why lawmakers believe Cline’s “abhorrent actions” are wrong. It says her actions “violate the moral and ethical standards expected of an elected official, particularly one charged with the duty to support our children in public education.”

“Now, therefore,” the resolution reads, “be it resolved that the Legislature of the state of Utah, the Governor concurring therein, condemns and denounces board member Cline’s repugnant attack on a student in the strongest possible terms and finds such behavior irreconcilable with the responsibilities of a Utah State Board of Education member.”

In a statement responding to the vote, the student’s father, Al van der Beeken, said, “It’s not the resolution we were hoping for, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

He continued, saying the family is waiting to see if Cline answers calls to resign, adding, “It might send a bigger message if the people of Utah have had their eyes opened a little more as a result of this and don’t reelect her. Our state and our children deserve to be represented by people we can trust and that don’t undermine and bully our children.”

Sandy Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove opened a file to create the resolution last week, with Senate Majority Whip Ann Millner also sponsoring the resolution in the Senate.

Spendlove said on the House floor Thursday that his resolution didn’t open impeachment proceedings against Cline because the Utah State Board of Education had already stripped her of the majority of her duties. The state school board voted Wednesday evening to request that Cline resign from her seat.

While lawmakers over and over called the resolution censuring Cline “historical,” it does not include binding consequences.

Because the Legislature censured Cline rather than impeaching her, the GOP school board member will be able to remain on the ballot and participate in the Salt Lake County Republican Party’s nominating convention in April. The primary election is in June.

Cox signed the bill shortly after it passed, saying in a statement that he agrees with the Legislature’s actions. He acknowledged the possibility of her reelection, saying, “we hope the voters will hold her equally accountable this fall.”

In his monthly appearance on PBS Utah earlier Thursday, Cox expressed thoughts similar to Spendlove’s.

“What happened yesterday has effectively removed her from any actions with the board,” Cox told reporters. “Whether or not she’s impeached is probably immaterial at this point because that is, in effect, what happened.”

Two representatives — Blanding Republican Rep. Phil Lyman and West Valley City Democratic Rep. Brett Garner — voted against the resolution. Lyman said in a text Thursday afternoon that “Cline’s social media activity, in my observation, did not warrant legislative involvement,” adding that he “validate[s] the feelings of” the student and her family.

As Spendlove explained why the Legislature was not impeaching, Garner shook his head in apparent disappointment. He told reporters after the vote that he did not feel a censure was a severe enough consequence.

After the House vote, the Utah Senate unanimously passed the resolution.

Democrats were largely not included in the discussions as to what action lawmakers should take against Cline — the majority of which happened in caucus meetings. As the House prepared to vote on it, Minority Leader Angela Romero repeatedly mouthed, “no,” while making eye contact with House Speaker Mike Schultz.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, speaks as House Democrats hold a news conference to address the Natalie Cline situation at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

During a news conference after the resolution passed, Romero said she had prepared a substitute resolution that would have started impeachment proceedings. That substitute was not brought up for debate.

“We’re here talking to the community now, letting the community know that we heard them and we wanted to start the proceedings to impeach Natalie Cline, but weren’t given the opportunity on the floor today,” Romero said.

Schultz told reporters in a separate news conference that the substitute was not considered because lawmakers voted to end debate on the resolution. That decision was made with a voice vote, not a roll call vote, so it’s unclear how many lawmakers may have supported continuing debate and hearing the substitute.

Prior to the resolution becoming public, Schultz said Thursday morning that the Republican caucus was “scattered” on how it wanted to approach the issue “so we’re trying to narrow everybody’s thoughts.” The body “could swing one way or the other” on impeachment, he added.

The House and Senate Republicans met in a caucus meeting Thursday afternoon, prior to the resolution being made public.

Impeachment requires the approval of two-thirds of the members of both the House and the Senate. “There was some support in our body for impeachment, but there was not enough even for a majority vote,” Schultz said after the resolution passed.

The student athlete’s parents did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposed censure.

What the student’s parents have said

One reason members of the House were hesitant to impeach Cline, Schultz told reporters Thursday, is because the controversy then “blows up like a mushroom cloud on a national stage,” and would result in further harassment of the student and her family.

He maintained that position following the vote, saying, “Impeachment is a political process that we felt like would put that girl and her family in the middle of a tug of war of sorts, and become a political football, and I don’t think that’s what’s best for the girl, for the family, or, honestly, I don’t think it’s right to give Natalie Cline a national platform to speak from.”

But the student’s parents asked Republican House lawmakers to impeach Cline in a closed caucus meeting two days before the resolution was made public, van der Beek told The Salt Lake Tribune.

When asked whether he had a conversation with the family in which they changed their position prior to the vote, Schultz said he had talked with the family, but didn’t indicate their position on censure.

On Thursday morning, Schultz initially mischaracterized to reporters what the family had told representatives about their wishes.

“The family has expressed that they have trust and faith in God, and in the process, and that they would be OK — you know, that it’s in God’s hands, they’re going to let it play out,” Schultz said.

After a reporter pointed out that the student’s parents wrote in an op-ed published in The Tribune on Thursday morning that they “are asking that, following an adequate due process, we can move towards impeachment of Natalie Cline,” Schultz amended his response.

“I know, they mentioned that to myself and to my caucus,” Schultz said. “But at the end of the day, they said they’re comfortable with the process and they placed it in God’s hands.”

Following Schultz’s weekly meeting with journalists, van der Beek said in a call with The Tribune that “essentially, that’s what we expressed to them,” but said in making those remarks, he and his wife were referring to themselves — not the Legislature.

“We do believe that it’s really not in our control,” van der Beek said. “We just felt like it was an opportunity for us to express our desire what we would like to happen,” which, he added, is impeachment.

Van der Beek continued, “We just continue to move forward and if it’s not resignation, if it’s not impeachment, which of course is our desire, then I guess the next thing is just to let the voters vote, and do what we can to help support putting someone else in her place at the end of this year.”

— Salt Lake Tribune political correspondent Bryan Schott contributed to this story.