Republican legislators voted Monday to temporarily mute a Democratic member of the so-called Tennessee Three during an already contentious House floor session, citing the young Black member’s violation of newly established rules meant to penalize disruptive members.
Rep. Justin Jones was barred from commenting on or discussing issues for the rest of the day, a week into a special session convened by Republican Gov.
Bill Lee in response to a tragic shooting at a Christian elementary school in Nashville in March.
As families affected by the tragedy have increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with the legislative process, the House and Senate are stuck in an icy deadlock on what to enact. Various solutions for mental health, juvenile justice, school safety, and other issues are being explored.
Republican legislative leaders refuse to consider significant gun control legislation, including the governor’s proposal to keep weapons away from anyone deemed a danger to themselves or others.
The decision to silence Jones elicited raucous yells and chanting that drowned out proceedings for many minutes, even after the House speaker ordered that the gallery be evacuated.
Jones had just criticized legislation that would have enabled additional law enforcement officers in schools and started listing other resources the state could provide.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton had urged Jones not to deviate from the subject. Members may be silenced for a day to the remainder of the year under new rules imposed by the GOP-dominated house last week for failing to keep to the considered measure.
“What we need mental health professionals in our schools,” Jones added. “We require funding for mental health and counselors.” We must pay our instructors more. We don’t need any more cops in our schools.”
Sexton then declared Jones out of order, prompting a vote on whether to keep Jones silent for the remainder of Monday’s session.
What followed was a frantic rush of parliamentary processes in which Democrats, enraged by the decision to continue with the attempt to muzzle Jones for the day, started imploring their Republican colleagues to alter their minds. Republican legislators, on the other hand, remained persuaded, with 70 Republicans voting to silence Jones. Democrats then stormed out of the chamber with Jones.
The crowd, which included gun control activists pushing reform in a special session after a fatal Nashville school shooting in March, yelled “fascists” and “racists,” prompting Sexton to ask troopers to evacuate the public gallery.
“Look, House rules are House rules,” Sexton said later to reporters. “We had a vote on it. You may not like the rules, but they are what they are.”
Many people stayed in the audience, and their screams of “vote them out” and “Whose house, our house” drowned out the parliamentary proceedings for many minutes, so much so that a Republican congressman stated he couldn’t understand what he meant to be voting on.
Earlier in the session, Sexton warned Jones that he was on the verge of “impugning the reputation” of Republican Rep. Gino Bulso by calling Bulso’s bills “reprehensible,” “asinine,” and “insulting,” including one being debated at the time that would allow private schools with pre-kindergarten classes to have policies allowing guns on campus.
Democrats pointed out that Bulso was urged to keep on subject, even after he stated Jones “continually misrepresents facts to the public,” then added Jones “makes outrageous statements,” without being put to a vote on whether he should be muted.
Soon after, Jones said legislators should “stop trying to put more guns in our schools to start a gunfight that would not protect our children.” “What good is a Glock against an AR-15?”
Jones was then deemed out of order by Sexton.
Jones was one of two Tennessee legislators ejected earlier this year for participating in a pro-gun control rally inside the Tennessee Capitol, catapulting him into the national limelight as the new face of Democratic politics.
The April protest occurred only a few days after a gunman opened fire at The Covenant School, murdering three children and three adults. Jones joined Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson reached the front of the House floor without authorization with a bullhorn, joining demonstrators in the public gallery and outside the chamber in shouts and pleas for action.
Pearson and Jones, both Black, were expelled, but Johnson, a white man, was saved by a single vote. Both have subsequently been re-elected to their posts.
“The House is out of order under Cameron Sexton’s leadership,” Jones said to reporters as he exited the chamber. “It’s very disheartening and troubling.” This is a step toward dictatorship, and we should all be concerned.”
A prohibition on the public displaying signs during floor and committee hearings was among the strict new rules approved by House Republicans last week. A Tennessee court banned its enforcement after agreeing with civil rights groups that the sign ban likely violated free speech rights.
While the state is battling to keep the ban in place, Chancellor Anne Martin said on Monday that “the state has no interest in enforcing an unconstitutional restriction.”
Jones’ silence is just one of numerous heated exchanges during the special session.