Federal lawsuit accuses Colorado legislature of suppressing Free Speech during debates over how to refer to transgender individuals

The Colorado State Legislature | Source: Iluminate

Conservative groups filed a federal lawsuit against the Colorado legislature, alleging that a set of rules preventing speakers from “deadnaming” or misgendering transgender people during public testimony violated the First Amendment.

Key Players

Rich Guggenheim, a Colorado resident and gay man, leads the Colorado chapter of Gays Against Groomers, a right-wing non-profit “organization of gays and others in the community who oppose the sexualization, indoctrination and medicalization of children under the guise of ‘LGBTQIA+.’”

Christina Goeke, a Colorado resident, co-founded the Rocky Mountain Women’s Network, an organization that aims to support women and girls and opposes “transgender ideology.”

Further Details

Colorado law allows only convicted felons legally to change the name they were convicted under if they demonstrate “good cause” to do so. But a January 2024 bill, if signed into law, would mandate conforming to a person’s gender identity as a good cause.

The bill, entitled “Name Change to Conform with Gender Identity,” was initially introduced on Jan. 10, by three Democratic state lawmakers. Critics say the bill would make it easier for criminals to hide their identities, arguing that this practice would put the public at risk.

On Jan. 30, the bill came up for public testimony in the House Judiciary Committee. Before public comment began, State Rep. Julie Gonzales (D), whose district includes parts of Denver, one of the bill’s sponsors, asked that speakers avoid deadnaming or misgendering people while speaking. Deadnaming is the use of a person’s pre-transition name, and misgendering is the use of the wrong pronouns when referring to a person. Shortly after, the committee chair, State Rep. Mike Weissman (D), whose district includes Aurora, formalized these statements as rules for public testimony. 

Guggenheim was in line to speak when these rules were being read, but felt he could no longer “deliver his views and the views of his group if he could not use language he was certain would be deemed ‘derogatory’ about the bill’s namesake, or use language denying the validity of trans ideology.”  He then left the meeting without speaking. The “bill’s namesake” was a reference to Tiara Latrice Kelley, a transgender woman who lives in Colorado Springs and has three misdemeanor charges from previous sex work in Florida. However, in February 2024, the House voted against naming the bill “Tiara’s Law.”  

When Goeke spoke, she was cut off multiple times by Weissman because of her misgendering of a transgender person. When asked to refrain from misgendering, she said that “misgendering is nothing, it means nothing. I correctly sex everybody.” After these comments, Weissman sent the committee to recess, and Goeke was not allowed to use the rest of her allotted speaking time. 

On March 27, the state Senate Judiciary Committee held its public hearing on the bill. Once again, rules were put in place asking speakers to avoid deadnaming or misgendering people. Both Goeke and Guggenheim spoke, but once again, the committee chair interrupted Goeke after she deadnamed and misgendered a transgender person. Allegedly, portions of her speech also were excluded from the official audio record of the hearing. Guggenheim was also cut off from speaking after repeatedly deadnaming someone. 


Lawsuit filed 

On April 4, 2024, Guggenheim and Goeke filed a federal lawsuit against Colorado, accusing the legislature of violating their First Amendment rights “to speak freely, petition, be free from compelled speech, truthfully state their opinions opposing trans ideology and sex nullification.” The lawsuit claims that prohibitions on deadnaming and misgendering prevented speakers from participating in fair debate. 

Endel Kolde, a senior lawyer at the Institute for Free Speech, representing Guggenheim and Goeke, stated that “Americans are having a debate about sex, gender, and pronouns. The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to express their views on those matters, even if those views might be offensive to some.”

The suit seeks $17.91 in nominal damages and an order permanently preventing the legislature from enacting misgendering and deadnaming restrictions. 

Governor signs bill into law

Both the Senate and House passed the bill along party lines. On April 12, it was sent to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis (D), who signed it into law on April 19.  It was put into law administratively, without announcement.