Tennessee House Leadership Loses Decision On Sign Bans

Image Credit: capitol.tn.gov

By Anita Wadhwani [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –

Davidson County Chancery Court Judge Anne Martin has ruled that the holding of small signs in House of Representatives’ galleries and committee meeting rooms is likely protected by the First Amendment, keeping in place a temporary restraining order allowing members of the public to carry signs.

“Although the Court appreciates the General Assembly’s desire to maintain decorum and prevent disruptions in its proceedings, the Court cannot conclude that the rule banning signs is reasonable in light of the purpose it could legitimately serve,” Martin wrote Monday.

“The rule (banning signs) is so broad that it encompasses behavior that is not disruptive, as is the case here,” her order said.

The decision means members of the public may carry signs in the House during the course of the specially-called session on public safety, pending a full court hearing in the case brought by the ACLU of Tennessee on behalf of three women ejected last week from a subcommittee for carrying signs.

The House approved new rules passed last Monday barred signs in House galleries and in committee hearings during the special session called by Gov. Bill Lee in the wake of the mass shooting that claimed the lives of three children and three adults at the Covenant School.

The rules were created during a private ad hoc committee meeting in House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s conference room that was not listed on the formal House schedule and included no members of the media or public, contrary to General Assembly open meeting rules, The Tennessean reported Monday.

The following day, three women holding small signs that said “1 KID > ALL THE GUNS” on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper were ejected from a House subcommittee meeting.

On Wednesday, the three women — Allison Polidor, Erica Bowton and Maryam Abolfazli, represented by the ACLU — filed suit, alleging the rule violated their right to free speech. Martin issued a temporary injunction the same day, temporarily blocking the ban on signs.

Attorneys representing House Speaker Cameron Sexton, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the House’s chief clerk and its seargent-at-arms fired back in legal filings, arguing the court was crossing a line, breaching the separation of powers in making its ruling.

“This threatens to upset the delicate demarcation of powers,” said Cody Brandon, an assistant attorney general representing the defendants during Monday’s hearing.

Martin responded from the bench with some skepticism: “But that’s not a power without check,” she said.

Brandon also argued the galleries and committee hearings are not entirely public, and the House may enact rules that protect decorum and prevent any disruptions to their business, he said. The House enacted the new rules in response to signs displayed last spring that contained profanities and that obstructed the view of members of the public, he said.

Polidor, speaking to reporters in court shortly after the Monday morning hearing, said she has been a stay at home mom for the past five years and had never before attended a legislative hearing on the day she was escorted out.

“I showed up one week ago today to my very first ever committee meeting in this state, and I was carried out by the Tennessee Highway Patrol for carrying a small sign,” she said.  “I came to talk about protecting children and I did not know I would have to stand up to protect my Constitutional rights along the way.”

The judge’s order serves as a temporary injunction allowing signs during the special session until a full hearing takes place on whether it will be permanent. Stella Yarbro, ACLU of Tennessee’s attorney, noted the rules challenged in the suit are specific only to the special session.

No hearing date has yet been set.

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