Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) drew national attention, multiple formal complaints and at least one call for her ouster from committee assignments in early April for a controversial social media post.

The high-profile dust-up, and Speaker of the House Albert Sommers’ (R-Pinedale) decision not to punish the progressive, second-term lawmaker for a post some perceived as threatening, have intensified interest in what otherwise promised to be one of the Legislature’s more obscure off-season assignments: Redrawing the boundaries of acceptable lawmaker conduct and reexamining the process for handling ethics complaints and other grievances.   

Questions about the appropriate role of legislative leadership, the mechanisms of accountability and the nature of social media have already arisen — as has discussion of the constitutional right to free speech.

“With this constitutional right also comes personal responsibility. We must remember that even constitutionally protected actions have the potential to deeply hurt others,” Sommers wrote in his dismissal of the complaints against Provenza. “Free speech is at times a messy thing.”

The Management Council formed the Subcommittee on Legislator Ethics Complaint Procedure March 23 — little more than a week before the Provenza controversy flared to life — while setting the Legislature’s priorities for the time between sessions, also known as the interim. 

“The subcommittee was created because we had a recognition that [Joint Rule] 22-1 is probably not as elegant as it needs to be,” Sommers told WyoFile, referring to the legislative rule addressing ethics complaints. “It’s not all bad. It’s not all good. But it’s bad enough that the Senate got rid of it” at the beginning of the 2023 general session.

“It has not achieved the objective of providing appropriate protections, appropriate transparency, appropriate recourse, [and an] ability to make reasonable decisions and take reasonable actions,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said. 

“The purpose of the ethics subcommittee is to try again,” said Rothfuss, who sits on the panel along with Sens. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) and Reps. Clark Stith (R-Rock Springs), Mike Yin (D-Jackson) and Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne). 

Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) at the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

Provenza’s posts

Sommers began to receive complaints against Provenza on April 2, according to a Legislative Service Office memo. That morning, the Wyoming Freedom Caucus tweeted a screenshot of a meme Provenza shared on Facebook. The image showed an older woman wearing the colors of the transgender flag and holding a scoped black rifle with the caption “Auntie Fa Says Protect Trans Folks Against Fascists & Bigots!” The meme had come from another account as part of Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31. 

Provenza has openly supported armed self defense for the LGBTQ community, via laptop stickers and lapel pins promoting the idea. The Freedom Caucus and the Wyoming Republican Party, however, criticized Provenza for making the post less than a week after a school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee where six people were killed. Both groups pointed to reports that the shooter identified as transgender. Along with their criticism, the Wyoming GOP provided a link on Facebook to the website where complaints can be filed against legislators. In its own formal complaint, the party asked that Provenza be stripped of all her committee assignments. 

“Regardless of the intentions behind my post, it has undoubtedly had negative impacts that I regret and for which I feel great remorse,” Provenza said in an April 11 formal apology. “Because the post was shared so widely and printed in national news outlets, it has now been viewed by potentially millions of people across the country in a way that harms the integrity of the Wyoming House of Representatives and paints the great state of Wyoming in a negative light.”

Minutes after the Wyoming Freedom Caucus tweeted the screenshot, Greg Price, the communications director for its DC-based counterpart, also shared it on his Twitter, garnering 2.3 million views in addition to coverage by Fox News and Brietbart. Provenza received death threats amid the uproar, according to an April 3 statement by Sommers. 

According to the memo, subsequent complaints referenced a video Provenza posted on her TikTok account in June 2022. The six-second clip shows either eels or sea snakes in an aquarium, according to the memo, along with voice-over audio. In the clip, one speaker says, “Could you give us some of your political beliefs?” while a second voice says, “Kill everyone now. Condone first degree murder.” The next part of the audio is cut off. 

That post “appears to be completely nonsensical and cannot in any reasonable consideration be taken as a true threat under the law to anyone,” according to the memo attached to the legal analysis Sommers requested from LSO. In particular, Sommers asked for a review of “misconduct within the scope of legislative duties as well as the protections afforded to legislators under the First Amendment.” 

Social media 

The Legislature does not have specific rules or guidelines for how lawmakers can use social media. 

“I do not believe it is my role as presiding officer to police all legislators’ online activity, especially when they are not performing legislative duties,” Sommers wrote in his dismissal statement. At the same time, Sommers believes an examination of the issue of social media with respect to legislative decorum is needed. 

“They have a right to represent their public,” Sommers said. “But they don’t have a right to disrupt the entire body. It’s that balance that I want to talk about.” 

While Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) “vehemently disagreed” with Provenza’s social media messaging, she supported Sommers’ decision to take no further action. Voters in Provenza’s “district can decide if they want her to continue to represent them next election,” Ward wrote on Facebook. 

“I think the use of social media falls 100% under the 1st Amendment freedoms we enjoy as Americans,” Ward told WyoFile in an email. “I don’t support attempts to censor free speech on social media. Deliberate and direct incitement to violence (and that is a high bar) is an exception.”

Ward opposes rules or guidelines for lawmakers using social media, she wrote, and she would “support the free speech rights of my fellow legislators, even and especially with those whom I profoundly disagree.”

Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper) at the Wyoming Legislature’s 2023 general session. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

More questions than answers 

When the subcommittee eventually meets, the discussion will likely go beyond the complaints lodged against Provenza. 

“This is a much, much broader conversation overall than just, ‘should we or should we not be policing social media?’” subcommittee member Yin told WyoFile. “It’s ‘how do we deal with our own internal affairs as a whole?’”

As written, Joint Rule 22-1 applies to “misconduct involving legislative duties,” which includes “violence or disorderly conduct” among other things, according to the memo. Notably, its definition includes “during legislative meetings, session, or during the performance of legislative duties.” Sommers cited the last requirement and free speech protections for his reason to dismiss. 

That said, Sommers also pledged to “take further action” against Provenza if she “engages in conduct on the internet or during her performance of legislative duties that fails to meet the decorum of the Wyoming House of Representatives.” 

Because decorum is not explicitly defined in the Legislature’s rules, things are somewhat unclear for Provenza.  

“What’s appropriate [for me] to post is, in some ways, kind of to be determined…” Provenza told WyoFile. “I certainly don’t have any intention of trying to be inflammatory. I also, in some ways, I’m on edge.”

Having gone through the complaint process, Provenza said, she now sees how “a motive or an intent that I do not have could be attributed to the words that I use, and that intent cannot matter and it can do damage.”

As for rules or guidelines for lawmaker social media use, Provenza is of two minds. On one hand, creating some kind of guidance could alleviate a concern she’s heard from constituents who have hesitated to testify at the Legislature, lest they become the subject of a lawmaker’s social media posts. 

“On the other side of that, it’s super tricky because how do you know who gets to determine what is appropriate? What isn’t?” Provenza said. That’s especially concerning as a member of the minority party, she added. 

“At any moment, any lawmaker really, could potentially be at the whim of the body as a whole and how they viewed that person’s post,” Provenza said. 

There are a lot of worthwhile questions to tackle, Yin said. For example, since Joint Rule 22-1 relies on complaints being made, it’s possible that existing issues can go unaddressed in the absence of a complaint.

“In some ways, that can be compared to a [human resources] procedure,” Yin said. “Are there things that happen within the workplace or within your responsibility as a legislator or outside of that, and where’s the line? Do we need to cover things outside of your activities as a legislator? And if we do, how do we make sure that it’s not all encompassing, where we’re policing every single legislator for everything they do in their entire life?”

Yin also raised questions about hypothetical situations like lawmakers being criminally convicted during their tenures. Would that trigger a process even if there is no complaint? Yin said he’s not sure, but he’s eager to have the discussion. 

Beyond hypotheticals, lawmakers have some real examples to work through. Incidents of assorted circumstances — both on and offline — have garnered complaints and varying degrees of disciplinary action in recent years. The Senate, for example, voted to strip Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) of his committee assignments during the 2022 budget session “for a continued pattern of intimidating and disorderly conduct and other behavior which is unbecoming of a member of the Senate.”

Public complaints were lodged against Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) during the 2021 special session, according to the LSO memo provided in the wake of the Provenza complaint. The complaints stemmed from a social media post that included a photo of armed soldiers storming trenches. Its accompanying text said, “when life gives you lemons FIX BAYONETS,” McKeown’s comments, “… the conservatives will no longer be bullied by the powers that be. Remember it’s the 3rd rib…”

McKeown’s post “was alleged to insinuate bayonet attacks against other senators for failing to vote on some issues,” the memo says. “No formal action was taken against the senator for the post.”

More recently, Rep. John Romero-Martinez, who once represented House District 44 in Cheyenne, was alleged to have threatened to kill a current and a former member of the Wyoming House of Representatives during the 2022 budget session. Romero-Martinez was moved from one committee to another, but no public discipline or action was taken against him. 

The subcommittee has yet to schedule its first meeting. It will be open to the public. 

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. Well, this article is amazing. Both for what is contained in it and what is omitted.

    Starting at the top with Rep Provenza. Complaints were filed concerning her activities on the internet which were clearly freedom of speech. The reporter failed to mention the complaint filed against Sen Bouchard’s freedom of speech at UW that was considered violent by the complainant. That complaint received a full hearing by the senate members of management council. They did the investigation by interviewing witnesses and taking written statements. Sen Bouchard submitted a written response to the committee and he was cleared on grounds of protected speech.

    Why would Speaker Sommers dismiss the complaint(s) in this case? Dismissing the complaint left Rep Provenza worried about the lines that are drawn (in thick crayon) in her freedom of speech. Political speech is the most protected speech in America. Speaker Sommers should have let the complaint move forward so that those lines would have been crystal clear. I am positive that Senator Bouchard would have stepped up to defend Representative Provenza. Rep Provenza would have been benefited by the exercise of defending her clear right to political speech. Speaker Sommers summarily dismisses the complaint and introduces fear and uncertainty into members of the house. Fear is a good tool for control.

    Rep Yin has some good points. Issues can and DO GO UNADDRESSED in the absence of a complaint. There are issues, right at this moment, that should be of large concern within the LSO and the legislature. Those concerns are far from hypothetical. I will contact Rep Yin and see where he stands on unaddressed issues currently in LSO and Legislature.

    Rep Yin wonders if a legislator gets convicted of a crime outside of the legislature… What happens? There are two clear cases that the reporter failed to note. The most recent was Representative Sam Krone of Park County who was arrested and convicted of felony theft from the County Bar Association (2016-2017). In that case, he is a felon and no longer a qualified elector.

    Prior to that Mr. Krone was fired by the Park County Attorney over behavior with a represented defendant. I do not believe the legislature acted on that behavior for which he was fired. Perhaps that is an area that should be explored by Rep Yin. My guess is there was no complaint, but the behavior was far worse than anything in this article.

    In 1987, Senator Wiederspahn’s house was searched by the DEA, members of the AG’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Cheyenne Police on an allegation of suspected drug possession . They confiscated some marijuana, paraphernalia and scales. He plead guilty to a federal misdemeanor and did not lose his seat in the Wyoming Senate.

    The vote to strip Senator Bouchard of his committees was a terrible action taken by the Senate. They did this following a complaint lodged by a lobbyist. The leadership of the Senate decided to completely ignore the rules of due process contained in joint rule 22 and met out punishment without following the due process adopted by the body. The reporter might be amused to watch the video of the exchange between Bouchard and the lobbyist. The complaint clearly did not match what was recorded by the cameras in the Capitol. Bouchard should have had the opportunity to defend himself

    These free speech issues and conflicts and others in the article were not handled by the leadership of the house and senate repeatedly by the rules. Being capricious with the rules and with the due process contained in the rules is the fault of legislative leadership. The leadership has created fear and division by failing to settle matters using the rules adopted by both the House and Senate. Now they seek to correct the rules that they failed to follow in many instances.

    I think everyone would agree that death threats are NOT protected speech. They should be investigated as criminal matters. Rep Provenza and other legislators have received threats from the public that should be investigated and if possible prosecuted. A death threat from a legislator should have been investigated and a public determination should have been released. The legislative leadership failed in that instance, as well.

    If the legislative leadership takes decorum seriously, then they should define it. If they cannot follow the rules concerning complaints, then they should be held accountable for their abuses of process.

  2. When I think about these issues I try to look at them so hypocrisy cannot be leveled. I have always felt one of the downfalls of public education was policing student behavior that occurred off school property. I find this issue to be similar in that as long as you are not on the taxpayers dime, one may express their 1st Amendment rights.

    It is perfectly within the rights of others to express regrets about your choices when providing an opinion, even one that you thought would remain private, but I see no hypocrisy in Representative Provenza. I vehemently detest what Representative Ward has pushed forward in Wyoming and I yet I back her argument here, let her constituents decide at the Ballot Box.

    Bouchard’s conduct was a violation of conduct during legislative activities hence the discipline.

    It should be said Democrats and Republicans are arguing the same response when it comes to protecting one’s rights, if each side believes that Constitutional rights are being usurped, they are arguing for the Founders solution – get out your gun and take your stand as the Second Amendment provides.

    Provenza’s desire to protect the rights of marginalized from attacks seems legitimate to me, but I find telephone Colonel McKeown’s whining about lemons as a pretext to fix bayonets lame; each has expressed it within their Constitutional rights, while not violating conduct in performance of their legislative duties.

  3. It seems obvious that we fail to elect the best and the brightest to serve in the Wyoming legislature. Furthermore, it is obvious they don’t have enough to do.

  4. The Republicans seem to be very thin-skinned when it comes to Democrats in the legislature but the far-righters can do anything they want like control women’s rights and stop free speech in the equality state. They would like it if there were no Democrats in Wyoming. What has become of a Democracy in Wyoming?

    1. Did it ever exist here? Wyoming “democrats” would be called moderate republicans anywhere else…