“We called on you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault—on democracy.” (Representative Justin Jones)
The Tennessee House of Representatives has become one of the latest battlefields in the GOP war on dissent, free speech and democracy itself. Metaphorically speaking, the ‘gloves are off’ and the GOP has brazenly announced that democracy has gone beyond its expiration date.
By now the entire nation knows how the republican dominated, Tennessee House of Representatives, led by Speaker Cameron Sexton, expelled two members, Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, for daring to use their 1st Amendment free speech rights on the House floor, but the expulsion is more than that. Representatives Pearson and Jones, (now re-instituted), were additionally expelled for the specific offense of RWB, aka “representing while Black.” Translation: white republicans expelled two duly elected Black representatives for being” uppity.” Racism was proudly on parade in the Tennessee House and the GOP war on democracy has gone viral.
Republican Speaker Cameron Sexton offered the asinine excuse of Jan. 6 reciprocity as justification for the expulsions on the Hallerin Hilton radio show.
“Two of the members, Representative Jones and Representative Johnson, have been very vocal about Jan. 6 in Washington D.C., about what that was, and what they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, of doing an insurrection in the capitol.”
Now, Sexton’s erroneous analysis was not only in response to the expulsions, but also to massive protests at the Tennessee state capitol days after the tragic shooting deaths at Covenant School in a suburb of Nashville on March 27. Children, (some as young as 3), and their parents marched on the Tennessee capitol demanding a higher level of gun control. Apparently, Sexton and his GOP colleagues were deeply offended by dissenters sporting diapers and wielding life-threatening Barbies.
6-year-old Marco Vincencio Warbington demonstrated far more maturity than the republican Speaker as he explained;
“I am in kindergarten and… I go to Schwab Elementary.”
Why was little Marco there? He knew why.
“Three kids got killed in a school.”
It should be noted that the Covenant school shooter managed to fire 152 rounds in the school during the murderous rampage. And yet, Tennessee republicans remain steadfast in their opposition to any reasonable gun control legislation, subsequently, concerned parents, teachers and children marched on the capitol.
This is the children’s crusade protest that Representatives Pearson, Jones and Johnson supported and actively joined. This is the children’s crusade protest, that enraged Speaker Sexton and his fellow Jim Crow republicans. As children flooded the House chambers, Representative Jones made his case.
“A week after a mass shooting plagued our community, the most direct action this legislative body takes, (or should I say my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are taking), is to expel—us, for speaking about the issues of weapons of war on our streets.”
Jones then issued a damning indictment of republican corruption.
“We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on—democracy.”
Rep. Justin Pearson … “children dying” …is…” business as normal” …
Rep. Pearson acknowledged the loud protest by explaining that … “We don’t want to be up here, but we have no choice but to find a way … to disrupt business as normal, because business as normal—is our children dying.”
Expulsions for the crime of … speaking…. violates both US and Tennessee Constitutions …
These expulsions are an egregious violation of the 1st Amendment. So, what does the Constitution have to say about these actions? According to Article IV, Section 4, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Furthermore, Speaker Cameron Sexton violated the Tennessee State Constitution regarding Article 2, Section 27. It reads as follows.
“Any member of either House of the general Assembly, shall have liberty to dissent from, and protest against, any act of resolve which he may think injurious to the public or to any individual, and to have the reasons for his dissent entered on the journals.”
Speaker Sexton’s response touted the old Jim Crow line. He proclaimed the following.
“They made the choice to lead a protest from the House floor, which has never happened in the history of the state of Tennessee. They explained disruptive behavior to the extent to where we had to shut down the session where we’re having bills to have passed legislation to such disregard for 45 minutes and they led the protest to the people in the balcony to disrupt the proceedings of the House while we were in session. I thought it rised to the level of expulsion and all three members, we didn’t pick the members, they chose themselves, who were going to come up there. And so, we put them all three up for a vote for expulsion.”
But Tennesse wasn’t the only state legislature that expelled or censured a member for the content of their speech. A few weeks after the Tennessee 3 expulsions, the GOP controlled House in Montana censured another progressive office holder. House Rep. Zooey Zephyr, an openly transgender woman was debating against a bill which would ban gender affirming care to minors. She didn’t have the votes to defeat the bill, so she criticized the invocation at the beginning of the session. To quote Zephyr; “I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”
That statement resulted in her censure, barring her from the House floor. She may vote remotely but cannot sit on any committees or address the body.
GOP war on the 1st amendment….
Bluntly put, the Tennessee 3 and Zooey Zephyr were guilty of breaking ‘decorum’ by daring to use their 1st amendment rights. Translation: once again they were guilty of being ‘uppity.’ The fact that the two expulsions and the other censure constituted egregious 1st amendment violations was irrelevant to the GOP. The GOP of Trump has decided that state level rules supersede the Bill of Rights. They’re certifiably wrong and republican attorneys know it but are willing to sacrifice the 1st amendment as acceptable collateral damage.
The old ‘states’ rights’ defense has been refurbished and deified from the days of slavery and Jim Crow.
There’s no question that the expulsions constituted an unconstitutional attack on free speech and the right to peaceably assemble, thinly disguised under state rules demanding ‘decorum.’ The vapid ‘decorum’ defense is merely part of a legislative war sponsored by the GOP against the Bill of Rights–and democracy itself. The paper trail is blatant and leads all the way up to the Supreme Court of 1966.
Supreme Court case of Bond v. Floyd (1966) …
Julian Bond was a newly elected state representative to the Georgia House in 1965. He was also a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center. The election of a well-educated and proud black man triggered a political tsunami in the Jim Crow establishment. The Georgia House refused to seat him by a vote of 184-12. Their alleged objection was rooted in part to Bond’s open endorsement of the SNCC’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Bond went to court and prevailed. The Supreme Court decided that Bond’s disqualification violated his free speech and free expression rights under the 1st amendment in the case of Bond v. Floyd. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice Warren wrote:
“Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them, and be better able to assess their qualifications for office; also so they may be represented in governmental debates by the person they have elected to represent them.”
The expulsion of Tenn. Reps Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, and the censure of Montana Rep. Zooey Zephyr are no different than the attack on Julian Bond.
And if this level of injustice weren’t disgusting enough, the GOP has pushed a war on democracy on all fronts, especially the right to dissent as enumerated in the First Amendment. Below is a quick analysis of the premeditated treasonous attack on liberal democracy sponsored by the GOP.
GOP war on free speech and other forms of legal dissent …
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) documented multiple GOP sponsored bills which clearly mandate the criminalization of constitutionally protected dissent. ICNL provided a legislative briefer titled: Critical Infrastructure Bills: Targeting Protesters through Extreme Penalties. It outlined the corporate sponsored pattern implemented by the GOP, with help from the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC.
Bills attacking the right to peaceably assemble or protest use ‘critical infrastructure’ as an excuse.
‘Critical infrastructure’ has been redefined by multiple state legislatures in confusing ways, most recently at the behest of a single industry, fossil fuel. Not only are water resources and components of the power grid designated as ‘critical infrastructure,’ but so are oil and gas pipelines. The protections afforded to critical infrastructure are assigned not only to fully operational pipelines or those under construction, but also to those in the proposal stage. That designation granted to proposed pipelines could theoretically criminalize any protests of the proposal itself as felonies. Such protests were previously classified as misdemeanor charges. Many of the bills further mandate long prison terms for the newly created, (and trivial), offense of ‘felony trespass.’
For example, Louisiana’s critical infrastructure law provides for a prison sentence of 5 years as a felony, for merely trespassing near pipelines or other critical infrastructure. It was classified as a minor misdemeanor before the new law’s enactment.
How does walking NEAR critical infrastructure, (except for military bases), constitute a felony? How can questioning a proposed pipeline justify felony charges? These critical infrastructure laws seek to criminalize any dissent, including the right to question such projects. Like a bastard child conceived by rape, these new laws have no legitimacy.
Bills attacking free speech rights … in the public sphere …
Ron DeSantis got into a public shouting match with Disney over his namesake “Don’t Say Gay” bill, now enacted into law. Apparently, teachers and other school personnel don’t dare mention the existence of gay people, (even if gay themselves). Free speech on certain topics which the GOP finds repulsive is now illegal in Florida. Disney corporation denounced the law and DeSantis moved to strip Disneyworld of a special tax status for that denunciation. DeSantis stupidly has gone on record continually claiming that “Florida is where ‘woke’ goes to die.”
Desantis’s tantrum resulted in a new law, again, specific to the Disney corporation, stripping them of various tax benefits because they disagreed with the governor. DeSantis’s own words were that Disney … “tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda.”
Hartman v Moore…
Ironically, DeSantis, a Harvard Law alumnus, failed to note or even care about serious 1st amendment violations posed by his ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. The very idea of government retaliation against anyone criticizing a politician constitutes a direct attack on the free speech provision of the First Amendment. In fact, the Supreme Court forbade such retaliation as unconstitutional in the case of Hartman v Moore (2006). The court stated that…” official reprisal for protected speech ‘offends the Constitution [because] it threatens to inhibit exercise of the protected right.’”
The majority decision, written by Justice Souter explained further that … “the law is settled that as a general matter the First Amendment prohibits government officials from subjecting an individual to retaliatory actions, including criminal prosecutions, for speaking out.”
Ironically, the ‘Mouse’ aka Disney has filed a lawsuit against DeSantis. Disney alleges that DeSantis ‘weaponized’ government for the purposes of direct political retaliation against protected First Amendment free speech. The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for northern Florida calls out DeSantis’s actions as … “patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”
State sponsored censorship in schools and libraries, courtesy of GOP….
The GOP has successfully pushed multiple bills, which grant state government the right to censor teachers in terms of curriculum and classroom discussion, if that discussion includes any mention of systemic racism, misogyny, or any other form of discrimination which benefits straight, white, Christian males. Many of these censorship laws are impossibly vague, resulting in a culture of fear. Writing bills that are intentionally vague renders any accurate reading impossible. In Florida, HB 1467 mandates that teachers and librarians face criminal prosecution for a felony if they display books deemed to be ‘pornographic.’ The determination of what constitutes ‘pornography’ is left up to prosecutors, many of whom are looking for further political advancement in the GOP.
Again, there is the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law aka HB 1557 which censors any mention of gay or transgender people in Kg-3rd grade classrooms. If Heather or Billy has 2 mommies, they’re not allowed to share family stories during ‘show and tell.’
Additionally, Florida’s HB 7 aka the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” was engineered to censor discussion of any material believed to contain ‘divisive’ concepts, thus criminalizing substantive discussion of actual history. These allegedly divisive concepts include discussion of systemic and structural racism, misogyny, and the very existence of the LGBTQ community.
The anti-menstruation bill….
If any of this weren’t ridiculous enough, the GOP attacked–tampons. Not only are books challenging the dominant ‘straight, white, male, Christian, Euro-centric’ narrative outlawed in schools throughout the nation, but now GOP reps are attempting to ban any discussion of menstruation in the schools.
HB 1069, sponsored by republican state representative Stan McClain would make any discussion of a young girl’s menstrual cycle, illegal in school.
McClain is quoted, saying that little girls shouldn’t be punished for asking questions about menstruation, when this bill literally punishes students and teachers who dare to educate girls about their monthly cycle. Apparently, tampons are now deemed more dangerous than an AR-15.
While the focus has been on certain legislators expelled or censured; there is another casualty in this fight, the voters. Expelling a legislator over something as vapid and vague as ‘decorum’ constitutes the disenfranchisement of the voters who elected that legislator. The very concept that legislature ‘rules can supersede voting rights represents a direct challenge to democratic rule. The actions of the GOP majorities in Tennessee for example not only nullified the vote, but reduced voting rights to a quaint suggestion as opposed to a binding decision, and perhaps that was the larger goal.
Emergency Manager laws…disenfranchising voters since 1990….
The earlier version of disenfranchisement, emergency manager laws granted state legislatures or a governor the power to set aside election results they didn’t favor. This is not a joke. The danger these laws pose to future honest elections is vast, so how do they work?
Our entire legal system is built on the concept of precedent. Decisions forced upon the citizens by state legislatures or a governor, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, (though expelling members is not inconsequential), often set the stage for larger thefts of our rights. We’ve seen this play before. The ‘Emergency Manager’ law in Michigan granted the governor authority to unseat locally elected officials if the community was experiencing economic hardship, which most often translates to poor and black. These laws represented a ruse used to steal power after an election was settled. Once an emergency manager was deemed necessary, they were granted absolute power over all local government functions, with no right of appeal.
The Flint water crisis was caused by a series of decisions made by appointed emergency managers, against the wishes of the community. The decisions made in this drama resulted in the lead poisoning of thousands of children. Citizens of Flint were locked out of the decision-making process. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the Emergency Manager law granted appointed emergency managers … “virtually unfettered legal authority” over the voters. No right of appeal exists. The study further explained that; … “the complex legal arrangements governing public health and safe drinking water, combined with a lack of legal preparedness among governmental officials, prevented timely and effective actions to mitigate or avert the Flint water crisis.”
The Flint water crisis was caused by emergency managers sacrificing public health to cut costs. This is the immediate crime, but the very issue of disenfranchisement remains a political threat to any community deemed too poor or too black to retain voting rights. Sydney Helsel wrote about this fundamental right in the Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law. To quote Helsel:
…”the right to vote for local leadership should be enshrined in the state’s constitution. Limited state intervention may be needed to support localities during financial emergencies. Financial emergencies cannot justify disproportionately disenfranchising Black residents by stripping local elected leaders of their power and authority, as they do now under PA 436.”
Sadly, emergency manager statutes have spread across multiple states. The threat to voting rights is the true obscenity. Voting rights only matter if the result of the vote is respected.
We live in an era where corrupt courts have declared that money is ‘speech’, bribery is legal, book censorship is acceptable and free speech is criminalized. This lunacy, pushed by the far right, is enabled by corporate controlled democrats, with the mainstream press ignoring threats to democratic rule, while handicapping the political horserace. Ironically, the promise of the Constitution is equal rights, but our present system captured by the intellectually bereft theory of ‘originalism’ represents a cruel and illegitimate denial of that sacred promise. Nevertheless, the First Amendment guarantees the right to dissent which includes free speech and the right to protest without criminal penalties.
The First Amendment specifically states that …
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Shamefully this political climate finds the GOP accepting money as ‘speech’ (and thus protected by the First Amendment); but denying the same protection to teachers, students, librarians and anyone daring to disagree with the dogma of religious fundamentalists. Books are being banned in our schools and libraries based on nothing more than a single objection from any fundamentalist bigot. Teachers and librarians are being threatened not only with job loss, but with criminal penalties (including jail time), for respecting the First Amendment. The censored material includes any honest discussion of systemic racism, social injustice, LGBTQ concerns, and any historic rendition that deviates from the “straight, white, Christian patriarchy as savior” narrative. In fact, progressive lawmakers in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Montana and Arizona are facing illegitimate punishments for daring to speak the truth.
Additionally, communities deemed too poor (or too black), are finding their voting rights rescinded as state legislatures or governors set aside the results of local elections to replace elected officials with appointees granted absolute power over all government functions. Middle America is more closely resembling North Korea, under republican rule.
Finally, since the Tennessee Three expulsions, (and subsequent reinstatement); the ‘decorum’ excuse has been applied to silence elected representatives daring to challenge white Christian Nationalist demands. Zooey Zephyr’s censure in the Montana House of Representatives is yet another example of voter disenfranchisement. When GOP House Speaker Matt Regier accused Zephyr of breaking ‘decorum,’ he demonstrated the criminal intent of a GOP determined to silence dissent. Zephyr pinpointed the strategy of republicans when she explained that;
… “If you use decorum to silence people who hold you accountable, then all you’re doing is using decorum as a tool of oppression.”
Getting back to the original racists of the Tennessee House, their perspective could be summed up with a statement from republican lawmaker Scott Cepicky. Cepicky sounded like a wounded child whining about his little red wagon. To quote Cepicky:
“I’ve been called a racist, a misogynist, a white supremacist … more in the past two months of my life than I have my entire life,” … “I’m going to have to swallow this seeing Mr. Jones back up here, walking these hallowed halls that the greats of Tennessee stood in, and watch them disrespect this state that I chose to move to.”
Apparently, Mr. Cepicky places greater importance on his vanity as a privileged white man, than on the safety of our children, or the survival of democracy.