Hearing in Tennessee on state legislature’s sign ban

August 28, 2023

A hearing was being held Monday in Tennessee on a temporary restraining order against the state House Speaker’s new ban on silently holding up protest signs during legislative sessions.

A Tennessee Chancery Court temporarily blocked enforcement of the ban after the ACLU of Tennessee filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Tennesseans who were forced to leave a state House subcommittee hearing last Tuesday for silently holding up 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper with their opinions written on them.

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 in March, 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’ call 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 in the state legislature ended the 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 to try again to pass legislation such as the red flag law he proposed and stronger background checks.

But so far in the special session, the House has only 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.

On Monday, one of the Tennessee Three, Rep. Jones, posted on social media that during the Chancery Court hearing on the sign ban, “The state’s ‘defense’ was a terrifying show of authoritarianism.”

He went on to say in a video message, “Essentially, the state made the case that they can pass whatever rules they want without any type of check on their power, that it’s within their sole discretion to pass laws even if they are unconstitutional, even if they silence the people.”

Jones said the state asserted the argument that the people are allowed to come and observe, but that the rules of state House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) “are really the only voice that ultimately should be heard there.” 

As of Monday afternoon there had been no public statement from Sexton’s office. A spokesperson for Sexton last week declined to comment on the ACLU’s lawsuit.

PHOTO: Tennessee Chancery Court in Nashville

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