Tennessee House sign ban will remain struck down for special session

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — For the rest of the special session, the public will be able to hold signs, according to a ruling from a Nashville Chancery Court judge.

Chancellor Anne C. Martin ruled against the House of Representatives, who sought to overturn Martin’s emergency order against the enforcement of the sign ban, calling it an “unconstitutional restriction.” The ban in question was passed by the House specifically for the special session as part of the House rules. It said no signs, noise makers or banners of any kind would be allowed in the House gallery.

The suit was brought by three women who were removed from a House committee meeting for holding signs before the ban was temporarily halted. Allison Polidor, Erica Bowton and Maryam Abolfazli were holding signs advocating for gun control that were about the size of an average sheet of printer paper that said “1 KID > ALL THE GUNS.” They were ordered to put the signs away but refused, at which time Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers escorted the women out of the room. They filed suit via the ACLU of Tennessee the next day, and Martin issued an emergency temporary restraining order (TRO) against the sign ban.

State responds to order blocking sign ban in House gallery

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, representing Speaker Cameron Sexton in the case, said the TRO was an abuse of authority and an infringement on the separation of powers in Tennessee, asking for the TRO to be stayed and to have the rule enforced again during the special session.

Martin agreed with the plaintiffs that their constitutional rights to free speech would be infringed upon if the ban were allowed to be enforced again, saying while the House does have the power to set its own rules for business, it cannot pass rules that violate constitutional rights.

Martin said, in part, because the ban was not included in the normal rules of the House during a regular session, the ban could not prove to be a “reasonable” restriction in order to maintain decorum, the risk of constitutional infringement was great and the state had “no interest in enforcing an unconstitutional restriction.”

“The rule is so broad that it encompasses behavior that is not disruptive, as is the case here,” she said in her ruling.

Not helping the House was the fact that previous restrictions on signs were “self-policed,” as said by Ethics Counsel and Research Director Doug Himes.

Judge temporarily blocks new rule against signs in TN House

“Although the Court appreciates the General Assembly’s desire to maintain decorum and prevent disruptions in its proceedings, the Court cannot conclude that the rule banning signs is reasonable in light of the purposes it could legitimately serve,” Martin said in her ruling.

Finally, Martin said the balance of harm to the plaintiffs versus the state weighed “heavily in favor” of granting the temporary injunction, as “the State has no interest in enforcing an unconstitutional restriction, and it is at minimal risk of irreparable harm.”

Based on her findings, Martin converted the TRO to a temporary injunction that will remain in place until further ordered by the Court, and the State’s request to stay the TRO was denied.

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