- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A special House committee on Friday unanimously dismissed a complaint against Rep. Valdenia Winn for calling supporters of a bill denying in-state tuition to people who are in the U.S. illegally “racist bigots.”

Members of an investigative panel cited the Kansas City Democrat’s First Amendment right to free speech as the basis of their decision, though one member called her comments an unfair attack on her House Education Committee colleagues.

“My view is we should support freedom of speech no matter how irresponsible, slanderous or hurtful that speech may be,” said Mark Kahrs, a Wichita Republican who drew jeers from Winn supporters in the standing-room-only audience when he said she should apologize.

According to a transcript of the March 19 meeting, Winn called the bill “an example of institutional racism, not individual racist, institutional racism because it deals with societal structural changes.”

But she also apologized to students and parents whose lives “are being hijacked by the racist bigots who support this bill.” When committee members protested that they were being called bigots, she responded “if the shoe fits, it fits.”

After the panel’s ruling was announced, Winn said she would not apologize. Her attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray, said the nine House members who signed the complaint should instead apologize to her.

Other members of the special committee, which consisted of three Republicans and three Democrats, said they didn’t think Winn was addressing individual House Education Committee members in her comments. The bill ultimately was put aside and not brought up again during the session.

Winn, who is black, could have faced discipline including censure or expulsion from the Legislature if she had been found guilty of violating House rules.

During a hearing on the complaint earlier Friday, Winn was greeted by loud applause from a large crowd of supporters who packed the meeting room and drew admonitions from the investigative committee’s chairwoman, Republican Rep. Erin Davis of Olathe. Davis twice warned audience members - some of whom had duct tape over their mouths - that if they made any noise she would have everyone removed and close the meeting to the public.

Davis also would not allow Irigonegaray to speak on Winn’s behalf, telling him multiple times he was out of order and wouldn’t be recognized as he tried to argue against his exclusion.

Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican who is chairman of the Education Committee, testified that he and other committee members were offended by Winn’s comments at the beginning of a hearing on a bill denying in-state tuition to residents in the country illegally.

“I have never been called the names she called me and other members,” Highland told the panel.

Rep. Tony Barton, a Leavenworth Republican and one of the nine complainants, testified that as a supporter of the bill he felt that Winn was calling him a racist. A lack of disciplinary action against Winn would establish a tolerance for using such inflammatory language in legislative proceedings, said Barton, who also is black.

Winn told the panel she was simply exercising her freedom of speech when she spoke out against the tuition bill, which she believes unfairly targeted an identified group of students.

“I believe the evidence today showed that my client, Rep. Winn, did nothing wrong and once again the Legislature has wasted tax dollars, money and time in doing something which is intended to stifle free speech,” Irigonegaray said.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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