Lawmaker Won’t Be Punished for Sharing Controversial Memes
Speaker issues reprimand, but dismisses complaints against Rep. Karlee Provenza
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Apr 13, 2023
State Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) apologized to her House colleagues earlier this week, saying her social media posts had a hurtful and negative impact that she had not anticipated. (Photo by Michael Smith)
By CJ Baker
Special to the Wyoming Truth
Wyoming’s speaker of the House has formally reprimanded a Laramie lawmaker for social media posts that critics saw as advocating for political violence. In a Wednesday statement, Speaker Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said the personal posts from Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) represented “inappropriate, uncivil conduct for a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives that reflects a discernable lack of judgment.”
However, Sommers dismissed a series of ethics complaints against Provenza and rebuffed calls from the Wyoming Republican Party and others to remove her from legislative committees. He suggested that Provenza should be offered some grace, “because we all make mistakes.”
Provenza, who had previously expressed regret for her actions, issued a formal letter of apology to her House colleagues on Tuesday.
“While the accusations ascribed to my posts that I support terrorism and intended to incite violence are false, the fallout has brought shame to this body and to the great state of Wyoming — for which I am deeply sorry,” Provenza wrote. “I accept responsibility for my role in this and I will do better moving forward.”
A national dispute
The controversy arose from a meme that Provenza shared on a personal Facebook page on April 1. Created by OffColorDecals — a Nashville-based co-op that offers “merch and firearms accessories for the left” — the image depicts an older woman holding a rifle, labeled with the text, “Auntie Fa says protect trans folks against fascists & bigots!” Auntie Fa is an apparent reference to Antifa, a left-wing movement that has drawn criticism for the violence advocated and carried out by some of its adherents.
Provenza said she shared the meme in honor of the Transgender Day of Visibility and that her intent was to advocate for “armed self defense for the LGTBQ community,” whose members “are disproportionately victims of violence.” But the post of the rifle-bearing woman in trans-colored clothing also came just days after a transgender man opened fire at a Christian elementary school in Nashville, killing three staffers and three children.
The conservative Wyoming Freedom Caucus denounced Provenza’s post on April 2, calling it “a disgusting call for further violence.” Their criticisms were soon amplified at the national level by the State Freedom Caucus Network.
“… it appears that Democrats only support gun ownership when they are used to kill people who oppose confusing children about their gender and mutilating their bodies,” tweeted Greg Price, the network’s communications director.
Provenza’s post was viewed millions of times on Twitter and multiple media outlets, including Fox News, covered the controversy.
The Wyoming Republican Party called the photo “extremely dangerous” and encouraged its members to file ethics complaints against Provenza.
“It is extremely important to remember that violent, political agendas are a ‘slippery slope’ to mass destruction in our nation,” the party wrote in a newsletter.
Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne asked Sommers to strip Provenza of her committee assignments.
However, Sommers and staff from the Legislative Service Office (LSO) said Wednesday that such a move would be without precedent and that Provenza’s postings were likely protected as part of her free speech rights.
Not a violation
The primary question analyzed by the LSO was whether Provenza committed “misconduct involving legislative duties,” and if the posts amounted to “violence or disorderly conduct.” Staff concluded they did not.
The meme featuring the armed woman “could not reasonably be characterized as a ‘true threat of violence,’” wrote Matt Obrecht and Tamara Rivale of the LSO, noting the meme’s text urges people “to ‘protect’ not commit acts of violence.”
Some of the complaints filed against Provenza also referenced a more bizarre meme she shared on her personal TikTok in June. It featured a talking eel, which says its political beliefs are, “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder …”
The six-second clip featuring “eels or sea snakes appears to be completely nonsensical,” Obrecht and Rivale wrote, “and cannot in any reasonable consideration be taken as a true threat under the law to anyone.” They also found nothing to support some complainants’ suggestion that a series of bogus reports of shootings at Wyoming schools on April 3 were related to Provenza sharing the meme.
The LSO concluded that Provenza’s posts might have been “ill conceived,” “offensive,” or “distasteful,” and “may have fallen below the conduct expected of a Wyoming representative by her colleagues.” However, the staffers said her actions didn’t appear to violate House rules. They also found no evidence that the House has ever disciplined a member for similar behavior.
Perhaps the most comparable situation from recent history came amid the 2021 Special Session regarding COVID-19 mandates. On Facebook, Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette) complained that the Senate wasn’t pushing back against mask requirements in Wyoming schools and shared a meme that pictured armed soldiers storming trenches. It was overlaid with the text, “When life gives you lemons FIX BAYONETS.” McKeown wrote in part that, “the conservatives will no longer be bullied by the powers that be.”
“Remember it’s the 3rd rib,” he added, referring to a place where a bayonet can be thrust.
Although complaints were made about the “violent meme,” Sommers noted that McKeown was not disciplined.
In dismissing the ethics complaints against Provenza on Wednesday, “I was guided by my personal belief in the rule of law and the traditions of the Wyoming Legislature,” Sommers wrote, “not what may be politically expedient.”
He came under heavy fire during the recent session for refusing to allow debate on several bills favored by conservatives, and he could face more criticism for this decision.
In her Tuesday letter to her colleagues, Provenza said her posts had placed many legislators “in difficult situations.” Provenza herself received a substantial amount of backlash, including death threats.
The lawmaker said she only intended to share the meme with friends and community members, who would “understand the tone that it was intended to have.”
With her post instead reaching a national audience, “It pains me to consider the hurt that families in Tennessee are feeling and that they may believe that a legislator in Wyoming does not take their pain and grief to heart,” she said, referring to the shooting in Nashville. “That is absolutely not the case, and it tears me up to think they might believe otherwise.”
Provenza added that, “We have a nation that is constantly hurting, and my failure to recognize how my words could be used to hurt people is something that I am truly sorry for.”
She apologized for providing “ammunition” that divided the House further and created a distraction, closing with a request for forgiveness.
Rep. Jeanette Ward, a Casper Republican and Wyoming Freedom Caucus member, suggested that voters in Provenza’s district can settle the matter in 2024. Ward said Wednesday night that she “vehemently disagreed” with Provenza’s posts, but supported Sommers’ decision to take no further action.
“Do we want to set a precedent of kicking Representatives out of the Legislature for social media posts?” Ward asked on Facebook.
In his statement, Sommers said he didn’t think it was his role “to police all legislators’ online activity, especially when they are not performing legislative duties.” However, the speaker suggested lawmakers consider creating rules related to legislative decorum on social media — and he pledged to take appropriate action “if I become aware of any further escalation of uncivil behavior online.”