APTOPIX Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, raises his fist on the floor of the House chamber as he walks to his desk to collect his belongings after being expelled from the legislature on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. George Walker IV/Associated Press

Tennessee Republicans’ dramatic expulsion of two Democrats who agitated for gun control in the state Capitol after a mass killing is the latest move by Republican state leaders around the country to stifle dissent and expand their power base, free speech experts say.

In Montana, Texas, Florida, Virginia and elsewhere, Republicans have moved in other ways to silence opposition in recent months, actions that might ultimately erode the country’s democratic ideals, they said.

“This Tennessee case is an example of norm-eroding legislative tactics that will further disrupt a healthy political system,” said Jake Grumbach, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington. The expulsion of the legislators is a “more extreme version” of earlier GOP tactics, such as recent restrictions Republicans placed on incoming Democratic governors in Wisconsin and, to a lesser degree, Michigan, he said.

After hours of emotional debate Thursday before a packed gallery, the Tennessee House voted to expel two members who had shouted slogans with a bullhorn during a protest inside the Capitol last week, days after a shooting at a Christian school in Nashville left three 9-year-old students and three adults dead. A third Democratic legislator, who did not use a bullhorn but stood during the brief protest, kept her seat as Republicans narrowly failed to marshal two-thirds of the vote against her.

Republican leaders said the lawmakers who quickly became known as the “Tennessee Three” – Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who were expelled, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, who was not – had violated the body’s rules of decorum during the March 30 protest. House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R), in an interview with a Knoxville radio station, deemed their actions an “insurrection” equivalent to or worse than that at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

In Thursday’s expulsion session, Republicans said their motivation centered on decorum, not power. Rep. Gino Bulso (R) accused the Democrats of conducting “a mutiny” and “a severe violation of our constitution.”


“You don’t truly understand why you’re standing there today,” Rep. Andrew Farmer (R) told Pearson. “Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bull horn.”

Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression in Philadelphia, said the legislature has the authority to set rules of procedure and decorum, and those rules should be enforced “fairly and evenly, and not used as a pretext to punish members based on their views.” If the House took action against a member for speech outside the chamber, he said, that would raise serious First Amendment issues.

Jones, the first to be expelled, called the move a dangerous “signal for authoritarianism” in a local news interview after the vote.

“This is a historic day for Tennessee, but it marks a very dark day for Tennessee because it will signal to the nation that there is no democracy in this state,” Jones said during the debate before he was expelled. “It will signal to the nation that if it can happen here in Tennessee, it’s coming to your state next. And that is why the nation is watching us, what we do here.”

According to some who have studied authoritarian behavior, it has already come to some states.


In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s administration has made it more difficult for protesters who disagree with him to hold rallies at the state Capitol, and he fired an elected prosecutor who objected to the governor’s stance on abortion rights.

DeSantis has been unapologetic about his use of power as he approaches an expected campaign for president.

“My view was I may have received 50 percent of the vote, but I earned 100 percent of the executive power, and I intended to use it to advance our agenda,” DeSantis said at a recent gathering, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Florida’s government implemented new state regulations this year requiring groups that want to hold rallies or events at the Capitol to be sponsored by a state agency or lawmaker. Democrats and liberal advocates say that is hard to do in a state where Republicans control the governor’s mansion and have supermajorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate.

Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., who at 26 is the youngest member of Congress, said in an interview Thursday that the Tennessee expulsions felt “personal” to him. Frost is Afro-Cuban and got his start in politics as an activist with the March for Our Lives gun-control group that grew out of the 2018 mass killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The two expelled Tennessee legislators were Black and the one who survived was White.

“It seems Black and Brown, newly elected people and a woman who stood up and said, ‘Enough is enough’ and now they are being expelled?” said Frost. “All they did is chant with their people about ending gun violence.”


Frost said the expulsions represent the corrosive nature of U.S. politics, which he said Democrats and liberals need a better strategy to fight.

“I find it very alarming, and I think what we are seeing is the Republican Party is really completely shifting to this very far right, authoritarian-type of fascist ideology where they really have gone to using the power that they do have to silence political enemies, to ram through agendas that people don’t want, and to use the power of the executive, or when they have majorities in these states, to poke people into submission, ” Frost said.

Florida Democrats DeSantis

Sen. Lauren Book, seated right, along with Democratic Chairwoman Nikki Fried, seated left, and about a dozen activists who were protesting SB 300, which would place a ban on abortions after six weeks, are arrested outside the Tallahassee City Hall building on Monday in Tallahassee, Fla. Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via AP, File

Nikki Fried, chairwoman of the Florida Democratic Party, said the growing tension within statehouses has meant legislative leaders are now effectively silencing even residents from speaking out in opposition to proposals. In Florida, it’s common for people to travel for hours to Tallahassee to testify – only to find out they are allowed to speak for 30 seconds.

“You are seeing the nation just sort of burst at its seams with political tension,” Fried said. On Monday night, she was among 11 abortion rights protesters who were arrested while holding a sit-in in front of Tallahassee’s city hall. She said abortion rights activists chose to hold their demonstration at city hall because they feared a harsh response from the state if they protested without a permit on nearby Capitol grounds.

Other Republican governors and legislatures in recent months also have attempted to make it more difficult for Democrats to voice dissent – or simply retain their seats.

In Montana, Republican lawmakers are advancing legislation that would open up next year’s Senate primary to allow the top two vote-getters in the primary – no matter their party – slots on the general election ballot.


The move has been criticized by Democrats as a maneuver to stymie the reelection of Sen. Jon Tester, the long-serving Democrat seeking a fourth term, because it would only be applicable to the 2024 Senate election. Third-party candidates, who in the past have cut into Republican candidates’ totals, would probably not be on the general election ballot, which could set up a defeat for Tester, the sole remaining Democrat elected statewide.

Montana Republicans said the ballot change was a test run for future elections. They noted that two other states, California and Washington, also use the top-two primary system.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) tried to force a county school board to hold new elections, which would have shortened the terms of members he disagreed with. State observers said the governor’s move, which failed, was unprecedented in the state’s modern history.

Separately, state Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) sought to expand the limited powers of the attorney general’s office at the expense of more liberal local prosecutors, although Democrats blocked the effort.

In Texas, a small but vocal group of House Republicans tried to end the chamber’s longtime tradition of having committee chairs from both parties, although Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan and his supporters ultimately stopped that proposal from reaching the floor for a vote. The state Republican Party ran radio ads chiding their highest-ranking House leader.

In multiple other Republican-run states, including Missouri and Mississippi, state lawmakers have sought the power to dismiss local elected Democratic prosecutors or wrestle control of the criminal justice system and policing.


Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion

Gun reform and “Tennessee Three” supporters raise signs in the gallery of the House chamber on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn. George Walker IV/Associated Press

Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said the expulsions of the Tennessee lawmakers are “unprecedented” in the history of the state, and “certainly not common practice anywhere in America.”

The Tennessee House has expelled members only three times in history, according to a report from the state’s attorney general’s office. In 1866, six lawmakers were expelled “for the contempt of the authority of this House,” because they tried to prevent the state from granting citizenship to former enslaved people. In 1980, a member was expelled for seeking a bribe in exchange for tanking a piece of legislation. And in 2016, a representative was expelled amid state and federal investigations for sexual misconduct.

“What we saw from the so-called Tennessee Three was an act of frustration and despair,” Paulson said. “We just had one of the most extraordinary tragedies in the history of this city. We saw there appears to be no path to gun violence reform in the state. So they picked up bullhorns.

“The state legislature has every right to manage the decorum of its workplace,” Paulson continued, “but it is absolutely not right to punish lawmakers or citizens for the exercise of free speech.”

Although it was the latest in a long line of school killings both in Tennessee and across the United States, the shooting at the Covenant School hit especially hard for many legislators who had personal relationships with some of the victims from church and Little League. Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s wife, Maria, knew two of the slain adults, both educators, for years and was to dine with one of them the evening of the shooting, he has said.

Lee, who made legislation allowing the carrying of a handgun without a permit a hallmark of his administration, this week announced plans to deliver $140 million to arm guards at Tennessee schools. But neither he nor the Republican leadership would commit to further gun-control measures in the wake of the Covenant School tragedy, further inflaming protesters. Lee’s spokeswoman, Jade Byers, has not responded to requests for an interview.


Matt Brown and María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.

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