Censorship in the Capitol: Tennessee Lawmakers Silenced for Peaceful Protest Following Nashville School Shooting

By: Anabelle Tolgyesi

On March 27, six people (three students and three adults) were killed after yet another mass shooting—this time, at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee.[1] The victims were identified as Evelyn Dieckhaus (9); William Kinney (9), Hallie Scruggs (9); head of school Katherine Koonce (60); custodian Mike Hill (61); and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak (61).[2]

Following the tragedy, thousands of Tennessee residents flocked to the state Capitol to advocate for stricter gun control laws. After joining in on the protest on the House Floor, Tennessee Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson were accused of engaging in “disorderly behavior” and purposely bringing “disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives.”[3]

On April 6, Reps. Jones and Pearson (two black men) were expelled from the House; Rep. Johnson (a white woman) survived by just one vote.[4] Since being removed, both Rep. Pearson and Rep. Jones have been re-appointed by local councils to fill the empty seats and have publicly stated their intent to run in the special elections, later this year, to fill the vacancies left by their expulsion.[5]

Only two other Tennessee House members have been expelled since the 1800s, and both instances involved serious allegations of misconduct.[6] The most recent expulsion was in 2016, when the House removed Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin) after he was accused of inappropriate conduct by at least 22 women; the vote to expel Durham was 70-2.[7] Before that, Robert Fisher (R-Elizabethton) was removed in 1980 after being convicted of soliciting a $1,000 bribe; the vote to remove Fisher was 92-1.[8]

Despite the fact that all three protesting representatives (referred to in the media as the “Tennessee Three”) are back in the House, the notion they were punished at all raises significant free speech questions. Expulsion in the Tennessee House is extremely rare, and in this case, was obviously being used to punish what the Republican majority considers an unpopular point of view. The resolution adopted by the House says Reps. Pearson, Johnson, and Jones violated chamber rules by approaching the podium between bills and speaking without being recognized.[9] To use expulsion to silence opposing points of view is anti-democratic. When the state uses its coercive power to silence its opponents, it is abriding speech within the meaning of the First Amendment.

In addition to the United States Constitution, Tennessee’s Constitution offers additional protection for its citizens. Article I in particular states: “The free communication of thoughts and opinions, is one of the invaluable rights of man and every citizen may freely speak, write, and print on any subject…”[10] and “[C]itizens have a right, in a peaceable manner, to assemble together for their common good, to instruct their representatives, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances…” [11]

When Reps. Jones, Johnson, and Pearson “violated” House rules, they did not engage in the sort of conduct that typically constitutes an expulsion from the House or the sort of unlawful conduct that would result in a conviction by a court of law. The Representatives did not interrupt while someone was speaking or get violent with their peers; instead, they joined in with the people—their constituents—who were already protesting. As elected representatives, they are supposed to be a voice in the capitol for the people they represent. When they joined in on the protests, they were doing exactly what they were elected to do. Unlike the lawmakers who kept their heads down as they walked by and ignored protesters, these representatives listened to the citizens of Tennessee and decided to take action. Further, as citizens, Reps. Jones, Johnson, and Pearson hold the right to protest as much as the next person, especially in a public forum such as a state capitol building. To be punished for this act is against the very meaning of the First Amendment.

Allowing politicians to silence their opponents simply because they disagree with certain points of view is a tool of facism, and completely antithetical to the democratic ideals upon which our constitution is based. If the First Amendment is not designed to allow us to voice our dissatisfaction with the government, then what is it for?

[1] Chris Gadd, et al, Nashville school shooting: Seven fatally shot at Covenant School, including 28-year-old suspect, The Tennessean (March 27, 2023 10:55 a.m. CT) https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2023/03/27/covenant-school-nashville-shooting-green-hills/70052363007/

[2] Deon J. Hampton and Elizabeth Chuck, Victims of the Covenant School massacre included a 9-year-old who loved to perform and a school leader dedicated to her students, NBC News (March 28, 2023 4:51 p.m. EDT), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/victims-covenant-school-massacre-included-9-year-old-loved-perform-sch-rcna76880

[3] Kimberlee Kruesi, Tennessee House GOP moves to expel 3 Democrats after participation in gun control protest, PBS (April 4, 2023 10:28 a.m. EDT), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/tennessee-house-gop-moves-to-expel-3-democrats-after-participation-in-gun-control-protest

[4] Emily Cochrane and Eliza Fawcett, Tennessee G.O.P. Punishes 2 Democrats by Throwing Them Out of House, N.Y. Times (April 6, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/06/us/tennessee-house-democrats-expelled.html

[5] Id.

[6] Cassandra Stephenson, et al, Justin Jones returns to state legislature after unanimous Nashville Council appointment, The Tennessean (April 10, 2023 4:40 p.m. CT), https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2023/04/10/justin-jones-reinstated-following-expulsion-tennessee-house-representatives/70099905007/

[7] Duane W. Gang, Tennessee legislative expulsions: From sexual misconduct to opposing rights of former slaves, The Tennessean (April 4, 2023 1:45 p.m. CT),  https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2023/04/04/tennessee-house-expulsions-history-legislative-members/70079648007/

[8] Id.

[9] H.R. 63, 113th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Tenn. 2023).

[10] Tenn. Const. art. I, § 19.

[11] Tenn. Const. art. I, § 23.

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