Members of the “Tennessee Three,” the group of Tennessee House Democrats who Republicans attempted to remove over a gun control protest earlier this year, railed against new House rules that limit what members can say on the House floor.
“There was an article written called ‘Is Tennessee a Democracy?’ and I believe today we are getting a very clear answer that it is not,” Rep. Justin Pearson (D) said on the House floor Monday. “The rules that are being put forward now are to limit freedom of speech.”
The new disciplinary rules allow the House to block members from speaking if they cause disruption, speak off the topic of debate or “impugn the reputation” of another member. The rules also ban members of the public from carrying signs into the chamber galleries.
In late March, Pearson, alongside Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson, interrupted House proceedings to protest for gun control after a mass shooting at a Nashville school. Republicans succeeded in expelling Pearson and Jones, who are Black, from the body, while Johnson, who is white, was allowed to stay in the Legislature.
Both Pearson and Jones were reelected earlier this month and have rejoined the Legislature representing Memphis and Nashville, respectively.
The Tennessee Legislature began a special session to consider public safety and mental health legislation Monday in direct response to the March mass shooting. Democrats hope that the session will be used to again consider gun control legislation.
The House disciplinary change was the first move of the session, leading some to believe that it was targeted at creating more serious consequences if the “Tennessee Three” or others chose to protest again.
Republicans argued the new rules are necessary for the body to work smoothly over the coming days. Any violation of the new policies would silence the member for three days, with the special session expected to last until Friday.
What is considered a disruption is up to House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R), whom Jones has accused of discriminating against Black members of the chamber.
Jones questioned the new policy on the floor Monday, noting it has no way to hold Sexton accountable if he applies the rules incorrectly.
“Where in these rules can you hold the Speaker accountable for abusing constitutional rights and misapplying the rules based upon a member’s skin color as opposed to treating every member of this body as an equal member?” he said.
Republicans in the chamber derided Jones, but he doubled down, saying, “You can boo, but the truth will be told today.” Sexton then cut off Jones’s microphone while he continued to attempt to speak.
In session Tuesday, members of the public wrote flashing messages on phone screens or on clothing to skirt the rules against carrying signs, The Tennessean reported. No state House or Senate committees have yet considered gun control legislation during the session.