Editorial: Tennessee Republicans’ appalling assault on speech and freedom
The expulsion of two Tennessee lawmakers for daring to speak out for gun control is a shocking assault on democracy and speech — in an era in which assaults on democracy and speech are becoming all too routine.
The majority Republican Tennessee House on Thursday ousted Democrats Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis, and very nearly removed Democrat Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, ostensibly for breaching decorum the day after the horrific killing of three 9-year-olds and three adults at a Nashville school on March 29.
The three lawmakers’ offense — taking the podium without first being recognized, and riling up anti-gun protesters in the gallery — did indeed breach House rules, but a simple reprimand would have sufficed. Bouncing Jones and Pearson from office and disenfranchising their many thousands of constituents is a response wildly out of proportion to the conduct.
That’s especially the case under these circumstances, when Tennesseeans demanding the most modest of controls on deadly weapons are met with a wall of indifference among the majority Republicans who shrug at gun deaths and insist that school shootings and slain students and staff are the necessary and peculiarly American price of freedom. They have every right to hold that view, however wrong-headed, just as they have the right to harbor destructive intolerance of the views of others.
But they have no right to silence their opponents, Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville voters, and the people they elect to represent them. Not in a functioning democracy that thrives on speech and debate.
How much longer before most Americans can count themselves as survivors of gun violence?
While rejecting life-saving controls on deadly weapons, Republicans nationwide have purported to stand strong for free expression. GOP leaders pretend to recoil in horror at so-called cancel culture — the supposed penchant of liberals and Democrats to shut down any who disagree with their political or social positions.
Yet it has been Republicans, in the years of the post-Trump presidency, who are perfecting the dark art of silencing Americans — especially those who deign to exercise their right to express opinions and choose officials and policies that represent their values.
For example, Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania tried to impeach Larry Krasner, the twice-elected Democratic district attorney in Philadelphia, because they distrust or disrespect voters in their state’s largest city. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis removed Democratic Dist. Atty. Andrew Warren of Tampa for similar reasons. The Republican majority in the Mississippi legislature moved to take over the courts, the police and the prosecution in their capital city, Jackson.
Republican majorities are making similar attacks on urban Democratic voters in many states, robbing them of their choices and their voices. Now the Tennessee House has followed the same template, shutting down members elected by their state’s largest and most liberal cities.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ unconstitutional removal of an elected prosecutor is just the tip of a Republican spear that seeks to harm criminal justice reform, Democrats, the Black vote and democracy itself.
It cannot escape notice that Jones and Pearson are both Black. Their removal recalls the ugly post-Civil War era in which Black candidates and voters were systematically disqualified from participating in Tennessee government. The ouster ill befits a state whose heritage includes the early and peaceful desegregation of Nashville, which showed the way for other cities across the South.
Beyond the racial dimension, it has sadly become the Republican norm to stifle debate. Don’t say gay, don’t say gun control, don’t say racism, don’t let kids read the “wrong” books or be read to by the “wrong” people, don’t permit children to learn about their bodies or their rights.
A government in which the majority can silence those with competing views is in serious trouble. One that goes further and actually expels those with competing views is dangerously close to becoming anti-democratic and anti-liberty.
Perhaps it’s the fate of the United States to watch its soul die along with the 19 students and two adults shot to death Tuesday at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
The rules of democratic engagement are constantly shifting, and Americans of goodwill may have genuine concerns about minor infractions of the sort committed by the so-called Tennessee Three. Especially in this era of sharp political division, one of the things holding us together is respect for rules of conduct. But grabbing the podium out of turn and participating in a raucous but clearly peaceful protest is hardly a Jan. 6-like assault on the Capitol. No member of the Tennessee House has ever before been expelled merely for breaking rules of decorum.
The Tennessee House majority’s action has taken the nation further down the wrong road. There’s still time to turn around. For now.
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