One of the most conservative lawmakers in the Wyoming Legislature has offered unexpected support for one of the state’s most progressive legislators who recently came under fire for a controversial meme she posted earlier this month.
State Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, says all elected officials should be able to post what they want on social media because that’s a simple avenue of free speech.
“Leadership stripping legislators of committees and silencing political speech only creates an environment of fear, chilling political free speech,” Bouchard told Cowboy State Daily in a Wednesday email. “However, political discourse is entirely different. Under the American Political System, a politician's fate rests entirely with the voters.”
The meme Laramie Democrat state Rep. Karlee Provenza shared April 1 depicts an elderly woman holding a rifle with a scope and the words "Auntie Fa Says protect trans folks against fascists & bigots!" Auntie Fa is a reference to the left wing anti-fascist group Antifa.
Provenza shared the post less than a week after a mass shooting in Tennessee. She also apologized and said she was surprised it gained the attention it did.
Many Republicans in Wyoming reacted with outrage to Provenza’s post, calling for her to be removed from her committee assignments, and some called for her to be expelled from the Legislature.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, announced in a press release that he would not take any disciplinary action against Provenza for her posts.
Former state legislator Tom Lubnau said the event should serve as a teaching moment for all lawmakers.
“Civility and decorum should not be fodder for political one-upmanship,” he said. “This incident, and others like it, should become a teaching moment about the responsibility of elected office and the power of words.”
Voice Of Experience
Bouchard is no stranger to testing the bounds of free speech in ways that rankle some of his colleagues in the Legislature.
He frequently posts content on his social media attacking other state legislators and/or specific organizations and members of the public.
During the 2023 legislative session, an ethics complaint was filed against Bouchard for various social media posts he made in recent months, including referring to people who support minors being able to receive transgender-related surgeries as “butchers.”
Another ethics complaint was filed on Bouchard during the 2023 session for cursing at a Green River woman in a private text during the session.
Bouchard has long defended his actions as constitutionally protected free speech and said Provenza deserves the same consideration.
“I appreciate another lawmaker who recognizes the importance of the Second Amendment,” Provenza said of Bouchard’s support. “But nonetheless, I’m deeply apologetic and agree that maybe being more careful with my words would be beneficial for everyone.”
A Closer Look
Sommers said he plans to have the Legislature’s Management Council address conduct on social media more specifically during the body’s rulemaking process this summer.
How far does free speech extend for members of the Legislature has been a common question posed in recent years.
In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school district violated the First Amendment when it punished a student for a vulgar message she made on Snapchat expressing frustration about school.
In 2022, Bouchard was stripped of his interim committee positions and a seat on the Management Council during the session for allegations of a “long pattern” of misconduct, said Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, at the time.
“The Legislature has a duty to protect free speech as guaranteed by the Constitution,” Bouchard said. “Leadership in the Senate bypassed due process when they stripped me of committee assignments using a baseless complaint. This is a dangerous trend in the Legislature.”
Bouchard said there should have been a private investigation made into the complaints against him before the Senate was allowed to vote on it in public.
A separate ethics complaint was also filed on Bouchard around that same time relating to a specific incident, but also referencing the broader charges the Senate considered.
A Rule 22 ethics complaint also was filed against Bouchard in 2017 for comments he made at a University of Wyoming discussion on the Second Amendment, where he joked about shooting an M-80 firecracker on campus to see how long it would take for campus police to arrive.
A private legislative investigation was performed but no action was taken against him.
Most of the combined House Senate Joint ethics rules relate to bribery and conflicts of interests on the overarching topic of legislator misconduct.
The Senate has no ethics rules in place which, until crafted, Bouchard worries could open a Pandora’s box for possible actions to be taken against senators. These rules are slated to be rewritten during the upcoming interim session by the Management Council.
Bouchard also said the Legislature’s investigation into Provenza’s post should never have made public and that by doing so Sommers is “breaking the rules all over again. The rules are there for a reason. If the rules aren’t followed, why are they written down?”
Under Rule 22, ethics complaint proceedings are supposed to remain private until probable cause is officially determined on a complaint, at which point a special committee is assembled to hold public meetings on the matter. The investigation into Provenza’s post never came close to this stage.
On Tuesday, Sommers, Majority Floor Leader Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, and Minority Floor Leader Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, met in private about the complaints made about Provenza’s post. Provenza also was allowed to provide testimony at the meeting.
There was no public notice about the meeting or that an executive session of House leadership was being called. The Legislature has wide latitude to make any meeting private and is fully exempted from the Wyoming Public Meetings Act.
Bouchard said although the 2017 ethics complaint filed on him was handled correctly, he believes the 2022 complaint was not, with elements of its investigation spilling into the public forum.
Was Already Public
Sommers told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday morning he found the Provenza matter to be unusual because it drew significant statewide and national attention. He put out a statement about the post shortly after it was made and told Cowboy State Daily he would hold a meeting for the ethics complaints made about it.
“It was a social media post that was very visible,” Sommers said of Provenza’s meme, an image she believes was seen by millions of people.
At the advice of the Legislative Service Office, Sommers said he decided to make a public statement about the Provenza post after the ethics complaints were filed.
“After it became visibly apparent how widely it had been shared, I talked with LSO about it and thought I had to respond publicly,” Sommers said. “Everything became public about it. The state Republican Party talked about it.”
Multiple Republican organizations put out statements about the post ,including the Wyoming Republican Party and Wyoming Freedom Caucus.
Bouchard said on Facebook on Wednesday that Republicans in Wyoming should be more focused on issues within their own party.
Provenza also made a statement about her post and then gave permission to LSO to publish her previously private apology letter sent to members of the Legislature on Wednesday evening.
On Wednesday afternoon, LSO and Sommers put out a joint statement determining that Provenza had not committed legislative misconduct, in many ways putting the issue to bed.
Bouchard also didn’t like that within that letter was reference to a Facebook post Sen. Troy McKeown, R-Gillette, made from the floor of the Senate in 2021, which many people found to be threatening at the time. There were no ethics complaints filed against McKeown.
“It’s an abuse of procedure to drag other legislators into another conflict,” Bouchard said. “Why should Troy have been mentioned?” Bouchard said.
Doubts About Gun Support
Provenza has apologized multiple times for sharing the post, but also explained why she made it.
The second-term legislator said she was expressing support for "arming and protecting the LGBTQ community, a group of people … (that) depend upon Second Amendment protection.” This is consistent with the caption below the post she reshared.
Although Bouchard said Provenza should have the freedom to post what she pleases, he’s skeptical that she’s a major supporter of the Second Amendment.
Provenza voted to support and co-sponsored the only pro-Second Amendment bill that came before her during the 2023 Legislature, a bill that restores gun rights to people who commit nonviolent felonies in Wyoming. She said the passage of the bill into law will impact thousands of Wyoming residents.
In 2022, Provenzva voted against a bill Bouchard supported prohibiting the enforcement of federal actions that infringe upon law abiding citizens' constitutional right to bear arms. She also voted against a more moderate piece of legislation prohibiting the enforcement of federal regulation of firearms by state officials.
In 2021, she voted for a bill removing the state residency requirement for a person carrying a concealed firearm without a permit and legislation limiting firearm seizure and regulation during emergencies.
That year she also voted against legislation prohibiting financial institutions from discriminating against firearms businesses.