ACLU sues over Tennessee State House ban on holding up signs

August 23, 2023

Republicans in the Tennessee State House of Representatives are being sued by the ACLU over a new rule banning the public from holding up signs during floor and committee proceedings. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed the lawsuit Wednesday after three people with signs supporting gun control legislation were kicked out of a hearing the day before. 

A Republican subcommittee chair ordered state troopers to remove the three sign-holders amid a special session in reaction to a mass shooting in March at The Covenant School in Nashville where three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed.

Soon after the shooting, two members of the so-called “Tennessee Three”—Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson—were ousted from their state House seats amid gun control protests. Along with their fellow Democrat Rep. Gloria Johnson, they were accuser of breaking House rules by calling for gun reform.  The two ousted Representatives are Black while Johnson, who survived an expulsion vote, is white. Both of the ousted lawmakers have since won reelection.

The lawmakers’ calls for stricter gun laws came as the state House was considering looser gun laws, including allowing people to carry rifles and shotguns in public without a permit, and to allow faculty or school staff members to carry a concealed handgun on school grounds with a permit.

When the GOP supermajority ended the state legislative session early without doing anything to make Tennesseans safer from gun violence, Gov. Bill Lee (R) announced that he would be hauling them back in August for the special session to try again to pass legislation such as the red flag law he proposed and stronger background checks.

So far in the special session, the House has managed to approve a new set of rules that carried harsh penalties for lawmakers deemed too disruptive or distracting, along with banning visitors from holding up signs.

The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks an emergency temporary restraining order to immediately stop the ban on signs, arguing it infringes on the public’s free speech rights in the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions.

“These rules are unreasonable,” ACLU-TN Legal Director Stella Yarbrough said in a statement. “The Tennessee House’s ban on silently holding signs in House galleries directly undermines Tennesseans’ First Amendment right to express their opinions on issues that affect them and their families.”

A spokesperson for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who is named as a defendant in the ACLU’s lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

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