Earlier this year, Wyoming lawmakers instituted new rules banning the use of discriminatory language by legislators against members of the LGBTQ community. The rules updated the Legislature’s anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policy in response to incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination seen in legislatures across the country.
The update was sorely needed.
Just last year, at a legislative meeting in Sundance regarding a bill aimed at updating language in state law to reflect the legalization of gay marriage, Rep. Cathy Connolly faced ugly backlash toward her bill, with opponents of the proposed legislation describing same sex marriage as “vile” and “disgusting,” calling her defense of it “drivel.” It became clear then that rules were needed to guide discussion in a civil manner, and to institute specific protections against LGBTQ discrimination.
But just this month, lawmakers chose to repeal these rules. Even worse, they also repealed specific protections based on race, sex, age and other definitions. They replaced it with language that is so vague that it does nothing to prevent lawmakers from engaging in hateful speech.
It can be argued that this is like one step forward for the Wyoming Legislature, and then two steps back.
Lawmakers responsible for repealing the rules argued that they inhibited free speech, while proponents of the rules maintain that they protected certain groups from discrimination in public debates, a place where civil discussion should be a minimum requirement.
The rules only applied to the Legislature and not the state at large. Their intention was to keep discussion among lawmakers civil. Expecting civility form our leaders is not an infringement on their First Amendment rights.
We should hold our representatives to a higher standard. Public forums and debates should not be platforms to use hate speech. And if discriminatory language is necessary for a lawmaker to illustrate their point, that begs the question on the quality of the contribution to the conversation in the first place.
The Wyoming Legislature has long been governed by rules that demand a certain level of conduct from lawmakers. We note that lawmakers are forbidden from wearing blue jeans on the House or Senate floor. Why are state lawmakers fine with governing what people wear in the Legislature — and therefore their free expression — but not what hateful language is allowed in discussions?
This move by a small group of lawmakers gives license to something we think is abhorrent. And it is a move that does not represent Wyomingites at large, but rather a small group of lawmakers who would rather protect their right to use hateful language than the right of minority groups to be protected from discrimination.
It could also have a chilling effect on the free speech that these lawmakers say they are trying to protect. People who are subject to discrimination are less likely to want to participate in any public or political process. How many citizens, if faced with an angry mob calling them vile for who they are, would continue to expose themselves to that abuse?
Wyoming residents have for years grumbled about the stereotype, which is often perpetuated nationally, that they are bigoted or narrow-minded. Unilateral moves like this by our elected officials only cement that stigma.