The Utah State School Board on Thursday voted to relax requirements for members who post on social media — a move that comes even as a celebrity member is under investigation for controversial comments on their Facebook page.
Under the changed rules, members can now voice their opinions online with no disclaimer. Previously, they realized that their views were personal in nature and did not reflect the official position of the Utah State Board of Education.
Natalie Cline, the member whose posts consistently caused concern and who prompted the request, said it felt “oppressive and bullying” to have to explicitly state when posting that they share their own beliefs.
“I’m beginning to understand what it feels like to live in a communist country,” she explained during the board meeting. “We’re quickly turning to something very un-American.”
The board consists of 15 elected members who oversee public education throughout the state. These members agree to abide by a set of statutes that include disclosing conflicts of interest and posting or commenting on social media in an “ethical and civilized 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 sparked complaints.
But even stating that her comments were “not an official position of the USBE board,” the Republican hothead has continued to raise concerns.
Less than a month ago, several members of the community reported Cline’s July 4th Facebook post to the board’s hotline. In it, Cline had written that schools “are complicit in preparing children for sex trafficking.”
She also said that they “support and encourage this evil practice by allowing children easy access to explicit, unnatural and twisted sexual content and brainwashing them into queer, gender-biased ideologies.”
Several teachers have spoken out against the post, calling it hurtful and inaccurate.
The board of directors then issued a statement distancing themselves from Cline and stating that she “strongly dislikes” the post. But the board took no action to censure Cline for the recent post (that’s the only action taken to censure her). However, an investigation into whether Cline violated her oath of office was ongoing as of Thursday afternoon.
Kelsey James, spokesman for the board, said that as individuals, members are allowed to freely express their thoughts.
And that’s the same approach the majority of the board took Tuesday in repealing the disclaimer rule, with some saying it violates the First Amendment on free speech.
Jennie Earl, who is also a Conservative board member, called the disclaimer “forced speech” forced on elected officials. And she said it has a chilling effect, discouraging those officials from sharing information and views with their constituents.
“It’s like we’re babysitting each other,” she said. “We are adults. … I find it offensive.”
Molly Hart, also a Republican, called the disclaimer unnecessary and said no other elected office in Utah requires such a statement on social media. State lawmakers post whatever they want without leaving a message before their comments, she said, and state school board members should be able to do the same.
Like Earl, she said she found it “infantilizing.” And she said it often stopped her from posting online.
Joseph Kerry, who is also a Conservative, said he felt the requirement was not being “consistently applied” and was being used purposefully to censure Cline. “I just don’t think it’s fair,” he added.
Kerry also said he’s concerned that board members, and even candidates running for the board, feel they aren’t allowed to speak openly about their views and goals. Voters need to know their stance, he stressed.
“We don’t want elected officials to be afraid to post and share,” Kerry said.
Since the vote concerned an amendment to a constitution, it had to be approved by two-thirds of the board. By a vote of 10 to 5, the vote passed with just enough support, largely along party lines.
Carol Barlow Lear, a Democrat, said she sees the disclaimer as a nod to transparency and helpful to voters trying to figure out where specific members stand and what the board regulates.
“I think it’s really important that an individual board member is very clear that they’re speaking as an individual and not as a board,” she said.
She was joined by Cindy Davis, a Republican, who argued that this disclaimer doesn’t govern what a board member can say afterward—so it doesn’t interfere with his or her speech.
Without those disclaimers, she added, she hopes the board will do more to communicate with all Utahns about its positions and the actions it has passed, and to correct misinformation as needed.
Randy Boothe, a Republican board member, said even without the disclaimer, board members should strive to exemplify “honesty, kindness and courtesy.”
Cline nodded as he spoke. She had said the board should not be a “language police” and that voters find it “rare and refreshing” when elected officials speak out openly. Ultimately, she said, you can vote out a board member if people don’t like what they’re saying.
Earlier in Thursday morning’s board meeting, several people spoke out in support of Cline during a vocal public comment period.
Monica Wilbur said, “It is unconstitutional if you try to silence Natalie’s voice in order to represent your district and speak the truth freely.” The Constitution does not say that the right to free speech is afforded to everyone but Natalie Cline .”
She ended by exclaiming, “May God bless Natalie Cline.”
Several members gathered there behind Cline wore t-shirts that read “#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 out for Cline, who has campaigned to remove books from school libraries that she and other conservative parents found inappropriate. These titles largely focused on the LGBTQ community.
Johnson said he felt Cline was “haunted” for standing up for what is right. He then suggested that those board members who don’t stand behind her and oppose explicit books need an exorcism.
“Lucifer, in the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to get out of them,” he yelled at the board members.
Three other moms added that Cline is a “truth teller” and a “heroine.”
Briawna Hugh was one of two educators who spoke out against Cline. As an English teacher, Hugh said she was concerned about Cline’s claims.
“I am very concerned by some of the comments by members of your board that brand teachers as caregivers and accomplices in the sex trade,” she said. “It’s a criminal charge.”
Hugh said teachers are already drowning under the workload and expectations. Such partisan attacks fuel distrust and increase burnout, she added.
“If 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 on her “grooming” allegations. The board previously reprimanded Cline in the fall of 2021 — the first time state school board leaders have ever reprimanded a member.
This comes after Cline released a message critical of LGBTQ students, which prompted some of her followers to threaten violence.
Previously, Cline named a teacher she believed taught students that “Communism is better than our form of government.” Several responded by taking to social media to call for the teacher’s sacking and urged him to leave the country. Some also sent threats to the teacher via direct messages, according to the Jordan School District, which also said at the time that Cline’s claims about the teacher were untrue.
Cline won her seat in November 2020, the first partisan board election, by a 38 percentage point margin. The term of office on the board is four years, which means that she will not be up for re-election until autumn 2024.
More than 80 complaints were filed against Cline during her incarceration.