TN House passes rules to restrict speech, limit disruptions and public during special session
The moves appear to be in response to floor and gallery protests at Tennessee’s Capitol earlier this year
Mothers of children who attend Nashville’s Covenant School in the Tennessee House gallery on the first day of the 2023 special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Tennessee House Republicans passed a set of rules allowing them to silence lawmakers deemed disruptive, off-topic or who “impugn the reputation” of another member during this week’s special legislative session.
The new rules are an attempt by Republican lawmakers to find a way to stop Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, from disrupting proceedings without expelling them or running afoul of the state constitution, which requires the two men to be able to vote in person on the House floor.
“The rules that are being put forward now are to limit freedom of speech,” Pearson said during the debate over them. “It’s not just limiting the freedom of speech of representatives. You are limiting the freedom of speech of our constituents.”
Earlier this year, Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to take over the House floor and protest a lack of response to gun violence following a mass shooting that killed six at the Covenant School in Nashville.
Republican lawmakers expelled the two for their actions, but local governments and voters swiftly returned the two men to their House seats, removing expulsion as a deterrent.
Gov. Bill Lee called this week’s legislative in response to the Covenant shooting but has restricted lawmakers from discussing any gun-related legislation.
The rules that are being put forward now are to limit freedom of speech. It's not just limiting the freedom of speech of representatives. You are limiting the freedom of speech of our constituents.
– Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis
Lee will allow lawmakers to discuss 18 topics, which include ways to strengthen criminal justice laws and address mental health issues. He will also enable them to discuss a red-flag law to remove guns from this deemed a risk, but no House or Senate Republican has sponsored such a bill.
Democrats have criticized the special session for not allowing lawmakers to debate some form of gun control. The Covenant shooter had three guns in their possession, including an AR-15 military-style rifle.
As part of the special session and new rules, Republican lawmakers restricted public access to the Capitol building, legislative offices and House floor.
A cap was set for how many people could enter the Capitol, and members of the public won’t be allowed to carry signs while in the House gallery.
House Republicans also closed off one of the two galleries from the public, allowing only credentialed guests like media members, legislative staff and lobbyists.
When can Sexton silence members?
In the past, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, could cut off a lawmaker’s microphone if he determined they were disruptive, off-topic or personally insulted a House member when commenting or asking a question during the debate of a bill.
Sexton had exercised this authority several times with Jones, Pearson, and the occasional Republican lawmaker. But, the new rules allow Sexton and the Republican supermajority to escalate the punishments.
“Stick to the bill, stick to the policy,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said advocating for the rules. “Let’s stay on the issue and not insult each other.”
The rules give House lawmakers three strikes on disruptions. A House member can’t debate or make remarks on the floor for three days after the first time Sexton deems them disruptive. On the second offense, it’s six days of silence and a third offense results in a ban for the rest of the special session.
When a member is off-topic, the rules give lawmakers four strikes before they are silenced for the rest of the special session. On the first offense, the lawmaker’s mic is cut off. On the second offense, the speaker won’t recognize the lawmaker on the House floor for three days, and on the third offense, it’s no recognization for six days.
When a lawmaker “impugns the reputation of another member” the House will take a vote on remark without debate. If the House determines the lawmaker insulted a member the same four-strike rules as being off-topic apply.
The House rulesHouse Rules of Extraordinary Session 8.1.23
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