Utah Governor Approves Censure Of School Board Member Who Questioned A Student's Gender

Members of the Utah House of Representatives applaud for the athlete who was the subject of school board member Natalie Cline's comments on social media after passing the House Concurrent Resolution Condemning and Censuring State School Board Member Natalie Cline at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Megan Nielsen/The Deseret News via AP)
Members of the Utah House of Representatives applaud for the athlete who was the subject of school board member Natalie Cline's comments on social media after passing the House Concurrent Resolution Condemning and Censuring State School Board Member Natalie Cline at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Megan Nielsen/The Deseret News via AP)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday signed legislation censuring a conservative member of the state Board of Education whose social media post questioning the gender of a high school basketball player triggered threats against the girl and led state officials to call for the board member’s resignation.

Both legislative chambers had swiftly passed a resolution condemning the actions of Natalie Cline a day after the Utah State Board of Education stripped Cline of her committee assignments and nearly all administrative responsibilities. The board will no longer allow Cline to attend meetings or place items on the agenda, and her colleagues have asked her to resign by Feb. 19.

The legislative reprimand carries no real punishment but is a formal way for state leaders to express their disapproval. The measure calling Cline's actions a “repugnant attack on a student” received unanimous support in the Senate after passing the House earlier Thursday with only two votes against, one from a Democrat and the other from a Republican.

Both the Legislature and Board of Education have left it up to Cline whether to resign or remain in her role with limited authority. She is up for reelection in November. Democrats had urged the Republican legislative leaders to punish Cline more harshly, either by impeaching her or by allowing the board to impeach her — a power it does not currently have.

Cline, who had previously come under investigation for inflammatory comments about LGBTQ+ students, had singled out the Salt Lake City athlete in a Facebook post that falsely insinuated the girl was transgender. After she learned that the girl was not trans, Cline apologized for provoking a firestorm of vulgar comments. Even then, Cline defended her initial suspicions, saying that a national push to normalize transgender identities makes it “normal to pause and wonder if people are what they say they are.”

Cox, a Republican, pushed back Thursday against criticisms from LGBTQ+ rights advocates who argue he and Republican lawmakers enabled Cline’s behavior by enacting a transgender bathroom ban that they say gives people license to question someone’s gender.

“Even if this young person was transgender, it would still have been inappropriate,” Cox said. “That is not who we are or what we should be doing.”

House Speaker Mike Schultz, a Hooper Republican, said ahead of the vote that members of his chamber were “scattered” on whether to impeach Cline or allow voters to decide her future in the fall.

“If this body moves ahead with impeachment, this blows up like a mushroom cloud on the national stage," Schultz said. “The hate that you’re seeing directed toward that family right now then becomes national. That’s a hard decision to make.”

House Minority Leader Angela Romero said she was frustrated that Republican leaders cut off debate before she could propose an amendment that would instead initiate impeachment proceedings. She and her fellow Democrats nonetheless overwhelmingly voted in favor of the resolution to censure Cline.

Cox said he thinks the education board's forceful censure will effectively have the same impact as impeachment. He said he agrees with the actions of both the board and the Legislature and hopes voters will "hold her equally accountable this fall.”

In a Facebook post Wednesday, Cline argued the board was taking away her right to represent her constituents without due process. She wrote that she did not have enough time to read all the materials and formulate a response before Wednesday’s meeting.

The board determined that Cline had violated policies requiring members to respect student privacy and to uphold state educator standards, which include not participating in sexual or emotional harassment of students and treating students with dignity and respect.

The board's resolution said Cline allowed negative comments about the girl to remain on her social media page while comments in support of the student were deleted, which together “appeared to constitute cyberbullying as defined” in Utah law.

In a letter published Thursday in The Salt Lake Tribune, the girl’s parents, Al and Rachel van der Beek, also urged Cline to resign and called for her impeachment.

“Ms. Cline did the very thing we teach our children not to do — she blasted social media without fact checking, which ultimately led to a barrage of hateful and despicable comments that were directed at our daughter that lasted for more than 16 hours,” the letter said. “It was one of the most painful things we’ve had to endure.”