I come not to bury WyWatch, and I’m certainly not here to praise it. But it’s no longer alive and someone should say something.
One of the most conservative organizations in 21st century Wyoming shouldn’t just disappear without a trace. But there was no announcement of its demise; its website was simply suddenly shuttered.
I called Becky Vandeburghe, WyWatch founder and chairman, to see what was up. “Is this an interview?” she asked with a suspicious tone.
“I just want to ask a question — why is your website offline?” I replied.
“Our organization is shut down because I’m moving out of state,” she replied, then hung up. I immediately called back and left a voicemail, asking where she’s moving to and if there’s any chance somebody else will restart the nonprofit organization she began in 2008.
I also sent her an email requesting a list of candidates WyWatch has endorsed this year. I don’t expect a response to either query.
One of my joys during every election year has been to go to wywatch.net and look at its candidate survey. In case you’re not already familiar with WyWatch Family Action, it was an anti-abortion, anti-gay, Bible-thumping, gun-toting, homeschool-supporting, keep-transgendered-people-out-of-women’s-restrooms group that had a rigid list of questions for candidates. They had to answer 100 percent in line with WyWatch’s positions to get its seal of approval. In previous years candidates had to declare that abortion is murder in order to be endorsed.
Before its shutdown, WyWatch had already played a role in two Wyoming political campaigns this year. The group endorsed and made a special effort on its website to promote the candidacy of Bo Biteman, who successfully challenged 14-year House veteran Rep. Rosie Berger, of Big Horn, in the GOP primary.
In the state’s Republican congressional primary, an issue WyWatch raised in 2011 was suddenly resurrected by the Susan B. Anthony List. That national anti-abortion group endorsed Liz Cheney and noted that one of her opponents, state Sen. Leland Christensen, of Alta, cast the key vote to kill an anti-abortion bill that mandated that a physician had to tell a patient seeking an abortion that an ultrasound was available, as well as offer a chance to hear the fetus’ heartbeat.
WyWatch had loudly rebuked Christensen and ridiculously claimed he is really a pro-choice liberal — a charge the Susan B. Anthony List was happy to revive five years later to promote Cheney’s candidacy. Christensen said that while he is against abortion, he saw the anti-abortion bill as government intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship.
But WyWatch claimed its greatest victory in 2011 when it won a surprising free speech case it filed in federal court.
During the legislative session five years ago, the State Building Commission approved WyWatch’s request for space in the Herschler Gallery, which joined the State Capitol Building and the Herschler State Office Building. Becky Vandeburghe erected two signs there — one depicting a “living preborn baby” in the womb with a Bible verse, and another showing a group of individuals with the caption, “We Regret Our Abortions.” WyWatch was advocating the passage of two anti-abortion bills.
After receiving what were described as “inflamed calls” about the display, the State Building Commission declared the signs unacceptable and removed them.
But the Constitution doesn’t say we all have a fundamental right to free speech as long as it doesn’t offend anyone. Wyoming settled with WyWatch. The group received $1 in damages and the state paid its $30,000 in legal fees.
Unfortunately, free speech didn’t ultimately prevail. Wyoming decided to prohibit the public from displaying any material in the gallery. Vandeburghe said WyWatch was pleased that the state realized that it infringed on the group’s constitutionally protected freedom of speech and religion, and that its previous policy was unconstitutional, but added, “It’s sad that it took such drastic measures to bring that about, but it’s even sadder that state officials decided to address the problem by stifling more free speech, not less.”
I can’t forgive WyWatch’s condemnation of gays, nor its complete refusal to even make exceptions about abortions for victims of rape and incest.
But I give the group credit for being willing to fight state government for an obvious violation of free speech. It’s increasingly rare, but sometimes Wyoming’s progressives and conservatives can find common ground after all.
— Longtime journalist Kerry Drake pens the weekly Drake’s Take for WyoFile.