In removing Sen. Chris Buttars as chairman of a legislative committee that most gay rights bills must clear, Senate leaders said they were not punishing their embattled colleague for his disparaging remarks about the gay rights movement.
Instead, the move would allow Buttars to more freely speak his mind, they said.
"I think it frees Sen. Buttars to feel more at ease in saying how he feels personally, without feeling like he's speaking on behalf of his committee or the Legislature," said Senate Pres. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville.
Yet on Saturday a state senator said on a radio talk show that Buttars was punished because he had broken a deal to not speak on the issue because he was such "a lightning rod."
The controversy raises the question of whether a state legislator can ever truly speak as a private citizen.
According to Kirk Jowers of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, the answer is no.
"You just can't sever the two," he said. "The practical effect, in this day and age, is that a public official is always speaking as a public official."
With the advent of the Internet, and particularly Web sites such as YouTube, elected officials must be ever-cautious of what they say, Jowers said.
Just ask former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., whose use of an obscure racial slur was caught on film, costing him his Senate seat and, according to some pundits, a shot at the GOP's presidential nomination in 2008.
"He thought he was with an audience that was more receptive of those comments," Jowers said. "Of course, within days, he had millions of YouTube hits. The past practice of saying one thing to one group and another thing to another group is pretty much over now. You never know who has a video camera or a tape recorder."
In Buttars' case, however, it would seem he did know the man with the camera.
During an interview with Reed Cowan, a former Salt Lake newsman, Buttars compared gays to radical Muslims and called the gay rights movement "the greatest threat to America going down."
While legislators on both sides of the aisle have said Buttars acted within his free speech rights to make those comments, some questioned whether the remarks were befitting of a senator.
"We're cloaked with the privilege and responsibility to vote on bills … and debate issues," said Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. "We have an obligation, particularly during the session, to act as representatives and senators of our state."
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Eagle Forum, said Buttars was not speaking as a state senator, but was expressing his personal opinions during the interview.
"It wasn't on the Senate floor," Ruzicka said. "It was a private interview. (Legislators) are up here for less than seven weeks a year. They are first and foremost private citizens."
From a legal standpoint, elected officials do enjoy some "sphere of privacy," said Jeff Hunt, a media law attorney who sometimes represents the Deseret News.
"But you do make the decision when you become a public official that a lot of your conduct will be subject to public scrutiny," he said.
Matters considered private for most people — infidelity, for example — could be considered a public matter if an elected official is involved, Hunt said. And public officials must meet more stringent standards in proving cases of libel and slander.
An elected official might be able to speak as a private citizen in family and religious matters, depending on the circumstances, Hunt said.
"It can be a tough line to draw," he said. "But if there's some nexus or connection between the speech at issue and the public official's position or involvement in the issue, then it's generally treated as public official speech."
That's true whether it's on the Senate floor or a backyard barbecue, Hunt said.
Buttars' remarks were made during an interview in his Senate office, while the Legislature was in session last month, according to Cowan.