Although speaking their minds can get legislators voted out of office and make them unpopular with other representatives, the state House ethics committee decided Thursday it cannot get them censured.
In a 2-2 vote along party lines, the committee decided it did not have probable cause to move toward a disciplinary proceeding against Rep. Arlon Lindner, R-Corcoran.
The proceeding required a majority vote.
A censure is an official reprimand from a legislative body, showing it disapproves of a member’s conduct.
Lindner angered House Democrats and Republicans alike last month when speaking about a bill he authored. Lindner said if Minnesota continues to provide gay men and lesbians the same rights as straight men and women, the United States will become “another African continent” with HIV and AIDS running rampant.
Lindner’s bill, House File 341, would remove sexual orientation as a protected clause under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Lindner also said revisionist history has tried to make people believe gays were persecuted in the Holocaust.
House Democrats led the charge against Lindner, also trying to take away his chairmanship of the House Economic Development and Tourism Division.
“Can we do something about it, or can we merely sit back and let him say anything, even if every person in the state of Minnesota thinks the Legislature is crazy?” asked Rep. Tom Pugh, DFL-South St. Paul.
Pugh also said the committee’s decision was important because Lindner’s comments do not just affect House members and decorum on the floor.
“Here we have Representative Lindner’s comments that upset hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Minnesotans and millions of Americans,” he said.
Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, said if the Legislature does not take steps to discipline its members, speech of any kind will be fair game on the floor.
“Unless we do something today, we will be able to say that there were no Jews killed in World War II and nothing happened in Rwanda,” he said.
Lindner said he was happy with the vote but said he does not give any apologies or have any regrets about his comments.
Representatives should not always have to worry about getting censured or having ethics charges brought against them, Lindner said, before they speak on the House floor.
“I don’t think we should have to evaluate in our minds what we say before we say it,” he said.
In response, Bill English of the Coalition of Black Churches and African-American Leadership Summit shouted at Lindner that he is a “redneck.”
“Anybody who makes those kind of comments is a redneck,” English said, adding that Lindner offended an entire continent of people with his remarks about HIV and AIDS.
English said Lindner was intolerant and had no right to not apologize for his comments.
Lindner, in response, said English was intolerant and that Lindner believed he had black people on his side.
Committee Chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who eventually voted against the probable cause motion, said order and decorum are needed on the House floor.
“We have problems with discipline on the House floor. When I was elected to this body I was appalled and continue to be appalled at the behavior on the House floor,” she said.
Free speech concerns
Lindner’s comments, however, were made during a debate on a bill he authored, and the House floor has traditionally been hallowed ground for free speech advocates.
“The (American Civil Liberties Union) believes that speech should be free and that political speech especially shouldn’t be censured,” said Chuck Samuelson, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union executive director.
Samuelson said he believes the Legislature cannot legally censure Lindner and if the voters want Lindner to be punished for what he said, it is already in their hands.
“(The voters) ultimately are who make the decision, not the legislators and not the judicial branch,” he said. “It’s about electoral politics. This is political speech.”
Samuelson said everyone, no matter how obnoxious his or her viewpoint, has the right to speak in the course of political debate.
“We don’t agree one bit with what he said, only his right to say it. This guy may be extremely abrasive, but he has the right,” he said.
House Democrats maintain that the censure would be legal because the House has the ability to punish its members for bringing the House into “disrepute” or “dishonor.”
“Does the Constitution fully protect Representative Lindner’s right to say it? Certainly he can’t be thrown in jail or sued, but the state Constitution allows us to discipline him,” Pugh said. “We recognize in our very rules that speech can lead to discipline in the House.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, thinks differently.
In a 1966 case, the court ruled the Georgia House could not exclude an elected representative because he had criticized the federal government’s Vietnam policy.
In the opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court said the government cannot hold legislators to a higher standard than other citizens.
“The State declines to argue (the representative’s) statements would violate any law if made by a private citizen, but it does argue that even though such a citizen might be protected by his First Amendment rights, the State may nonetheless apply a stricter standard to its legislators,” Warren wrote. “We do not agree.”
University law professor Adam Samaha, who teaches First Amendment law, said political speech is central to the rights protected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although many people believe the court should not separate protected forms of speech based on its content, Samaha said, political speech is within the core of protected speech.
“The court has been discriminating, holding political speech higher than the rest,” Samaha said.
Ethics committee Republicans also raised concerns that Lindner’s free speech rights were being impeded.
“Is it really freedom of speech unless you hurt me? Is it freedom of speech unless we disagree with you?” asked Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston.
Although he said he does not agree with Lindner’s statements, Davids said it is up to the people in Lindner’s district if they want him to be punished for his comments.
“Maybe instead of the House deciding this, maybe the 37,000 people in Representative Lindner’s district should decide this,” Davids said. “If people are so outraged, then they won’t send him back here.”
Emily Johns covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]