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    GOP leader muscles through vicious bill and tramples First Amendment. But don’t say she hates.

    By Clay Wirestone,


    Kansas Rep. Brenda Landwehr, seen during an April 26, 2023, hearing, has done everything possible to avoid the consequences of her actions in supporting a bill targeting trans kids. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

    Kansas Rep. Brenda Landwehr has done everything possible to avoid the consequences of her actions in supporting a bill that targets transgender children.

    At a hearing late last month, she ejected several of the state’s most prominent LGBTQ+ activists in a shocking abuse of power . She followed that up Thursday with a surprise committee meeting , where members bypassed democratic processes by placing House Bill 2791 into the shell of Senate Bill 233 . They later passed the bill, which bans gender-affirming care for those younger than 18.

    During debate, Landwehr offered a high-profile platform for lies about transgender people, harangued her colleagues over Medicaid expansion and painted herself as somehow the wronged party.

    “Since the hearing the things that I have been called have been despicable,” she told the committee . “And I can tell you, I do not hate. I may disagree with your lifestyle. I don’t hate. There’s individuals in this capital that are gay, I’m fine with them. … I just wish you wouldn’t tell us that we hate because I just don’t think that that’s in the hearts of the other committee members in here.”

    I’ll accept Landwehr’s statement for all it’s worth, which is a couple of pennies at best.

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    A person’s heart may be virtuous and kind, but that person’s heart doesn’t bring up bills for consideration or vote on them. A person’s heart doesn’t run for election or chair the House Committee on Health and Human Services . A person’s heart doesn’t ignore the plain text of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That’s the totality of the person, including their intellect.

    And Landwehr’s intellect made sure that she didn’t have to see or hear from the people who would be most affected by this bill. After enduring fierce blowback for her bullying tactics at the Feb. 29 hearing, Landwehr didn’t announce Thursday’s meeting through the usual agenda , available on the Legislature’s website. That’s her right, unfortunately, and it conveniently meant she and the committee didn’t take their votes in front of a roomful of LGBTQ+ advocates.

    As D.C. Hiegert, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said on this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast: “We were surprised. We’re hearing that some representatives on the committee were surprised. And so if that’s the way that the people’s house has been run, it’s really hard to say that it is a house for the people and that they’re doing work for Kansans. Because it’s clear in the past two weeks, what’s gone on with just this bill has shown that’s not the case.”

    Hiegert was one of those ejected from the Feb. 29 hearing on the flimsiest of pretexts.

    Because Landwehr’s committee inserted HB 2791’s text into an already passed Senate bill, they have now tied the hands of other legislators. Assuming the House passes the bill, the Senate won’t be able to amend it — members will be forced to accept or reject the entire thing. This kind of procedural chicanery guarantees a glide path for hate, in which lawmakers will face as little opposition from their constituents as possible.

    That doesn’t even get into the bill’s actual text , which includes a ham-fisted attempt to ban rallies by trans people at the Statehouse.

    What does this all tell us? Landwehr and her allies in the House may not hate. But they have shown their determination to muscle through a bill that will injure LGBTQ+ kids in Kansas while bullying and shutting out those who dare challenge them.

    Silencing speech

    Footage of Landwehr from the February hearing sparked fierce response.

    I compiled a brief video spotlighting the representative, and viewers across the social media universe took note. From Facebook to Twitter, YouTube to TikTok, folks instantly understood what she was up to and why. Some reactions crossed all bounds of restraint, good taste and profanity. Others brought up good points.

    Here are a handful from the TikTok comment section.

    “Zero compassion or empathy.”

    “Every one of her rules is a violation of their right to protest and their right to free speech.”

    “That lady should realize who she works for. Why do people keep electing these old people?”

    “Do these people not know they are public ‘SERVANTS’. The public are not your children.”

    “When you know you are so wrong that you have to use the veil of authority to silence discussion.”

    I highlight these responses because they zeroed in on a topic I hadn’t addressed in my previous column about Landwehr. I found her behavior so outrageous that I focused on what she did and those she threw out. However, I didn’t talk about the First Amendment and free expression. In talking with media lawyer Max Kautsch , it became clear the chairwoman had likely overstepped her bounds.

    “When the Legislature conducts its hearings, it creates a ‘limited public forum’ under the First Amendment, and speakers in such a forum cannot be removed unless their speech causes an ‘actual disruption,’ ” he told me via email. “As there is no evidence the speakers at the hearing who were removed caused an ‘actual disruption,’ removing them was unconstitutional.”

    Kautsch expanded on the concept of an “actual disruption,” pointing to a 2013 9th Circuit case in which “the court found that a public commenter caused an ‘actual disruption’ when he directly engaged with the audience by urging them to stand in support of his position.”

    In this case, those in the room and watching online didn’t see anything remotely comparable. They saw advocates and everyday people stepping up to participate in the democratic process and sharing their feelings. Were their words designed to prick the consciences of committee members? Sure.

    Discomfort doesn’t equal disruption.

    “Merely expressing that the Legislature has ‘blood on its hands,’ in the forum designed by the government to receive that expression, is simply not an ‘actual disruption,’ ” Kautsch said.

    In other words, just because the chairwoman didn’t like certain speech doesn’t mean she had the right to silence it. She didn’t necessarily have the right to eject people for knocking over a water bottle either, the lawyer noted. Landwehr’s adlibbed rules before the hearing appear to conflict with the official committee guidelines .

    I should note here that I asked Landwehr for comment before my last column. After it appeared, she showed some interest in talking. However, my emails trying to set up that conversation went unanswered.

    Capitol Police vehicles park in front of the Statehouse in 2023 as a precaution. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

    Other threats

    The First Amendment matters. So do all the other norms that Landwehr trampled and levers of power she pulled to silence the Kansas LGBTQ+ community.

    For example, take her threat at the Feb. 29 hearing: “Should you choose to violate what I’ve just laid out, you will be asked to leave or you can be escorted out by our fine gentleman right over here in uniform, very identifiable.”

    She was referring to Capitol Police. As I noted in my last column, Landwehr is just the latest government official to use law enforcement as a truncheon against queer people. Take some time to read about the Stonewall uprising if you want an example. But can she actually do that under state rules and regulations?

    Sadly, apparently so.

    Capitol Police “have broad authority to act in response to what they consider a ‘security’ issue, and as we can see, that may include taking direction from legislators with their own concerns,” said Sharon Brett , legal director at the ACLU of Kansas. “This is why we should scrutinize legislators’ decisions to use their power to invoke a police response when there isn’t a true public safety reason to do so. It is authoritarian and has the effect of silencing dissent.”

    ACLU of Kansas executive director Micah Kubic took a broader yet vital view.

    “This is a particularly illustrative example of the immense power that lawmakers who sit in charge of committees have when it comes to deciding what bills get heard, what bills get a vote, and who gets to even say anything about it in the hearing room,” he said.

    “Is it an abuse of power to use the Capitol Police to silence or intimidate Kansans whose viewpoints you don’t agree with?” Kubic added. “Is it troubling to send the message to someone trying to share their story in good faith that they might be embarrassed or escorted out by the Capitol Police simply because a committee chair doesn’t agree with them? That’s for the people of Kansas to decide and hold their elected officials accountable.”

    Kansans need to know what their elected officials do in their name. Especially when those elected officials work overtime to shield it from you .

    Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, threw several people opposed to anti-transgender bills out of a Kansas House hearing for defying her ground rules for decorum. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

    Open debate

    Landwehr and I agree on one thing, at least.

    “I like to have open, honest debates and calm debates,” she said on Thursday. “And I always ask people to keep your ears open.”

    As Kansas Reflector opinion editor , I love myself an open and honest debate. Calm I’m not so persuaded by, but I’ll set that aside for the moment. All of us benefit keep our ears open to good-faith arguments from multiple sides in debates over public policy.

    The experience of transgender people and what it means for children to transition have become topics of widespread discussion . Some of that debate comes from a place of honest curiosity. These exchanges can change minds and advance equality.

    Still, there’s a huge difference between sitting down for a coffee and what Landwehr and her committee did. Their debates have been less about grappling with the real-world experiences and challenges of trans folks — and how public policy might improve their lives — and more about whether these folks can or should exist at all.

    Banning gender-affirming care doesn’t promote discourse.

    It shuts down conversation and sends a clear message to trans Kansans: You aren’t welcome here.

    More ominously, I cannot shake the feeling that many in the Legislature would welcome the opportunity to roll back LGBTQ+ rights even further. Bills such as HB 2791 and SB 233 open the door to persecuting more people, more aggressively. As I’ve mentioned over and over again, simply being gay remains a crime under Kansas statute.

    Anthony Alvarez, a Loud Light fellow , outlined the challenge on our podcast: “It’s clear to me that they just kind of don’t want trans people around. Because every trans adult was, at one point, a transsexual child. I’ve never talked to any trans person that hasn’t talked about, even when they first started puberty, feeling uncomfortable with their body. And it’s just clear that even though they talk about wanting to protect children from their choices, that they want to stop this choice. Even as an adult.”

    LGBTQ+ people have been ejected and abused, excluded and ignored. But we will not be silenced when our lives, and the lives of our families , are at stake.

    Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here .

    The post GOP leader muscles through vicious bill and tramples First Amendment. But don’t say she hates. appeared first on Kansas Reflector .

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