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Tennessee Republicans Kick Protesters Out of Hearing for Holding Sheets of Paper

Gun reform advocates have condemned GOP lawmakers in Tennessee for prioritizing gun rights over speech rights.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a rally for gun reform at the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville, Tennessee, on April 17, 2023.

Gun reform advocates in Tennessee have denounced the Republican led-state legislature for passing new restrictions on speech rights this week while advancing a bill that would allow some people to carry guns on school grounds.

The bill, which was passed during a special legislative session on public safety, would allow certain individuals to bring guns to schools, including law enforcement officers (both on- and off-duty), former members of the military, and state residents with an enhanced carry permit. During that same session, Republicans soundly rejected dozens of Democrat-proposed bills that would have placed more restrictions on gun ownership.

One of the new rules restricting speech rights bars protesters from holding signs — even small ones — in certain parts of the capitol, including during committee hearings or in legislative chambers. During a contentious hearing on Tuesday, protesters in the capitol directly challenged that rule, holding up standard 8.5 by 11-inch pieces of paper, many of which read, “1 Kid > All the Guns.”

In response, Republicans ordered state highway patrol troopers to physically remove people who refused to put their signs away.

“I am not leaving. We have rights to hold a sign. If you have to drag me out, so be it,” said demonstrator Allison Polidor.

As Polidor was escorted out, she shouted, “This isn’t what democracy looks like.”

As it became clear that others would continue to hold their signs in defiance of the new rules, committee Republicans ordered the entire room to be cleared, allowing only lawmakers and media to remain.

Democrats at the hearing condemned Republicans for their hypocrisy, noting that although protesters were escorted out for silently holding signs, anyone carrying a concealed weapon was allowed to stay.

In addition to the restrictions on signs, the new rules regulate how many people can be in the rotunda of the building, which is widely regarded as an open forum for constituents to voice their beliefs. One-half of the gallery space can now be occupied by any registered lobbyists who want to attend hearings.

The new rules also allow the state Speaker of the House to limit other lawmakers’ speech rights, granting the speaker exclusive power to determine whether another representative’s speech is disrupting legislative business. If the speaker deems necessary, they can suspend recognition of representatives for up to three days, blocking them from speaking on the House floor. Upon a second offense, lawmakers can be suspended indefinitely.

Covenant Families Action Fund, an organization that was formed after the deadly school shooting at Covenant School in Nashville earlier this year, decried the new rules.

“Tennessee should protect speech rights. The gallery should be open primarily to the public, and political expression, including the use of small signs, is a right protected by the First Amendment, and in no way distracts from the members’ ability to participate in constructive dialogue,” the group wrote in a statement, adding:

We came to observe our legislature in action. We sat quietly, prayed for and listened to the members. Instead, with the new ‘no sign’ rule, we felt we lost a bit of dignity in our identity as parents of survivors.

State Rep. Justin Jones — one of three Democratic lawmakers who Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to oust from their positions in response to a gun reform protest they led on the House floor earlier this year — criticized the efforts to suppress free speech in the state capitol on MSNBC this week.

“The Tennessee Constitution says that the People’s House, the doors shall be open. But instead, we have cordoned off the rotunda, we’ve shut off one-half of the gallery, just for lobbyists to have special seats,” Jones said.

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