NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Two days after the Tennessee House of Representatives adopted a rule prohibiting signs from being used inside the House chamber and committee meetings, it has been blocked by a Davidson County judge.
In an effort to “protect the free speech rights of Tennesseans wishing to engage peacefully in the democratic process,” the ACLU of Tennessee sued in Davidson County Chancery Court, seeking an emergency injunction against the rule’s enforcement.
The rule is part of a rules package adopted by the House specifically for the special session. It includes a provision that states, “No voice or noise amplification devices, flags, signs, or banners shall be permitted in the galleries of the House of Representatives.”
During discussion on the House floor at the beginning of the session, it was clarified that the rule would also apply to House committee meetings, so long as there wasn’t a different rule set by that committee’s chairman.
The suit named House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R—Crossville), Chief House Clerk Tammy Letzler, Sergeant-At-Arms Bobby Trotter and Col. Matt Perry with the Tennessee Highway Patrol in their official capacities for their part in the removal of three protestors from a House committee meeting Tuesday for violating the new sign rule.
During the House Civil Justice subcommittee, Chairman Rep. Lowell Russell (R—Vonore) cleared the room of all audience members after some of them clapped, spoke out and held signs after being told to stop. Among those cleared from the room were Covenant parents, including Sarah Shoop Neumann, who has been a vocal advocate for stronger gun control following the Covenant School shooting.
“I know there are big personalities but there are also dead kids and grieving people looking for solutions,” she told News 2’s Chris O’Brien after she was cleared from the room Tuesday.
“It’s really concerning when you have your colleagues who are so drunk on power that they feel like they can do anything and treat people with complete disrespect,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D—Nashville).
According to the ACLU-TN, the new sign rule is an infringement of the three protestors’ Constitutional rights to free speech.
“These rules are unreasonable,” said ACLU-TN Legal Director Stella Yarbrough. “The Tennessee House’s ban on silently holding signs in House galleries directly undermines Tennesseans’ First Amendment right to express their opinions on issues that affect them and their families.”
The plaintiffs, Allison Polidor, Erica Bowton and Mayam Abolfazli, were all forced out of the committee room and thus had their constitutional rights denied, the ACLU-TN said.
“I have a close friend whose son was a third grader at The Covenant School last year. I spent most of the day on March 27, 2023, not knowing whether my friend’s son was dead or alive. He survived, but his life, and so many others, will forever be marked by this tragedy,” Polidor said. “On August 22, 2023, I joined with so many other moms from across Tennessee to urge our lawmakers to enact common sense gun laws. I was removed for peacefully holding a small sign and exercising my First Amendment rights. What started as a debate on gun safety has morphed into a blatant violation of my First Amendment rights.”
“As a parent, I am deeply concerned about gun violence in Tennessee. I came to the Capitol to watch the proceedings and express my concerns about gun safety,” said Abolfazli. “But the House’s new rule on signs prevents me from expressing what I believe to the very people elected to represent me. I joined this lawsuit to ensure that Tennesseans’ right to voice their opinions to lawmakers is protected.”