Tennessee Legislature must protect free speech

Zoe Sissac, Opinion Editor

Any time a politician faces backlash over controversial remarks, they immediately cite the First Amendment. Freedom of speech ensures citizens can safely express their opinions without government interference. Unfortunately, the actions of Tennessee legislators prove that the right to free speech does not apply to all Americans, only the most privileged. 

All eyes have been on the Tennessee Legislature since last month’s devastating Nashville school shooting. Voters have been advocating for heavier restrictions on firearms and reforming state gun laws. After days of debate on the House floor, three Democratic legislators decided enough was enough. 

State Reps. Justin Jones, Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson invited protesters inside the Statehouse, chanting in support of gun reform. The actions disrupted the regular proceedings of the state Legislature. Instead of writing bills, House members spent the day silencing protesters. 

But sometimes disruption is necessary. The representatives, dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” recognized that the state legislature needed a wake-up call. Protesting in the courthouse just happened to be the easiest way to solve this issue. The Tennessee Three did not deserve to face expulsion from Congress over their actions. 

After the protest, the Republican-led Legislature held a vote to expel each of the three Democrats who organized the protests. Critics claimed the actions of the Tennessee Three violated House rules. While Gloria Johnson retained her seat in the House, Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were ousted from their seats in the Legislature. 

Many assume Jones and Pearson’s removal was racially motivated. Jones and Pearson are freshmen, African American representatives. On the other hand, Gloria Johnson is a white, well-known politician.

In 2020, the National Conference recorded that only 16% of the Tennessee legislature identified as people of color. The decision to expel Jones and Pearson was already decided the moment they went against the status quo.

Of course, Republican leaders denied this accusation, with Majority Leader William Lamberth saying, “We literally did not look at the ethnicity of our members for expulsion.” Yet these claims of not considering the race of the two members can be easily disproved. Each member of the Tennessee Three was involved in the protests on the House floor. 

The actions of the Tennessee Legislature were abhorrent, ignoring state precedent in favor of ignorance. 

The Tennessee Constitution allows the House to “punish its members for disorderly behavior and with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” But a lawmaker has never been expelled due to protesting on the House floor. While the legislators may have violated the House rules of decorum, it is unprecedented for one of these violations to result in expulsion. 

Rather than rewriting gun laws, the House reacted to the Nashville shooting by expelling two elected representatives. It turns out the actions of the Tennessee Three were justified after all. The focus of the Legislature is not on the six lives lost in the shooting but on adhering to the beliefs of the majority party. 

Former President Barack Obama called out the actions of state legislators on social media. 

“No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice—especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children,” Obama said. “Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won’t lead to progress.” 

Luckily, the constituents of the two expelled members quickly reelected them to the Legislature. Even after being reelected, the two congressmen still face opposition in the House. 

The Tennessee House Republicans stated, “If elected to come back and serve their constituent in the Tennessee House of Representatives, we hope they will act as the thousands who have come before—with respect for our institution, their fellow colleagues and the seat they hold.” 

Who is to say the next time Jones and Pearson disagree with the Republican-led House that they will not be expelled?

If other state governments follow the new standards set by Tennessee, then states will have the power to limit the speech of Legislature members. Now state Legislatures can expel members for minor infractions or disagreeing policies. The ramifications of Tennessee’s decision will be long-lasting. 

State Legislatures will no longer be focusing on fixing statewide issues or instituting new laws. Instead of positively impacting local communities, state legislators will be forced to adhere to the majority opinion or face expulsion. 

The Tennessee Legislature needs to edit its state constitution to create stricter rules for expulsion. The governmental body needs to create a committee that reviews the actions of the accused legislator who violated the rules of decorum. The rules of decorum should also be altered to allow for more citizen input during the legislative session.  

I stand with the Tennessee Three, and so should you.