Our view: Tennessee legislators ignore First Amendment

Will Groves, Opinion Editor


The right to protest peacefully is one of the most important rights under the First Amendment and the Tennessee House of Representatives has directly attacked these voices of protest. 

   On Thursday, March 30, the House chambers moved for debate on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s $205 million plan to add resource officers to all Tennessee schools. Lee created this plan in response to the March 27 mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville. 

   The bill made no mention of gun restrictions, although Lee has voiced hesitant support for red flag laws that allow temporary court injunctions to prevent a person from purchasing or owning a gun if they pose a risk to themselves or others.

   Over 1,000 protesters were present at the Capitol building, protesting Lee’s plan and the extremely lax restrictions placed on the sale and carrying of firearms. Protesters entered the Capitol building through legal means and remained in the gallery or outside the House chambers.

   During the debate over Lee’s proposed bill, Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson, after reportedly having their speech buttons turned off, stood by the Speaker’s stand for a short time with a megaphone and led chants for the protesters in the gallery until the debate was halted. As a result of their actions, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton removed Jones, Johnson and Pearson from all of their committee assignments the following session. 

   A few days later, three Republican representatives brought removal charges against the three Democrats for their role in the protest. House Minority Leader Karen Camper described the three members’ actions as “good trouble,” according to CBS News. “Good trouble” was coined by former U.S. Rep. John Lewis who believed it was necessary to act out of the norm and speak out to create real social change.

   The action of protest by the three Democratic House members is protected by the Tennessee Constitution and U.S. Constitution. Article 2 Section 27 states Tennessee legislators have the “liberty to dissent from and protest against” actions they believe could cause injury to the public. Guns have caused so much injury to the people of Tennessee and the U.S., so the Democrat representatives are constitutionally justified. 

   The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to protest. The removal of these representatives would rob over 100,000 Tennesseans of their voice in the legislature. 

    This may come as a surprise to Sexton, but there is a difference between leading chants and lawless action. Sexton likened the gun law protests to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection after President Joe Biden’s presidential victory in 2020. The Tennessee protesters entered the Capitol peacefully and did not injure or kill anyone. The Jan. 6 insurrection left many injured, five dead and millions of dollars worth of damage. The two are not the same in the slightest.

   We at The News believe this is a gross exaggeration of the protest in an attempt to demonize students who simply want to feel safe at school.

   Media sources have focused on former President Donald Trump’s indictment on 34 felony charges instead of this egregious dispelling of democracy. While we at The News agree with the charges placed against Trump, we believe major news sources should also prioritize the potential harm caused by the Tennessee House GOP and should not be giving Trump more media attention. 

   Sexton is purposefully removing members of an opposing party for partisan reasons. Removal proceedings for members of the Tennessee legislature have been used in the past to remove members accused and convicted of crimes including wire fraud and sexual harrassment.No crime was committed by the three Democrats. Why, other than pure Republican partisanship, are the three Democrat members being removed? 

   The acts of protest from the Democratic representatives are fully protected by the Tennessee state constitution U.S. Constitution, and the House representatives and speaker are unfairly attacking ideological opponents. This sounds like something straight out of an authoritarian government.

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