Tennessee Three Democrat sues over expulsion from state congress

GOP booted Justin Jones from House after he took part in gun control protest following Nashville school shooting

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Thursday 05 October 2023 17:46 EDT

Related video: Nashville votes to reinstate Justin Jones after expulsion by GOP for gun protest

Rep Justin Jones, a Democrat in the Tennessee statehouse, has filed a federal lawsuit against his April removal from the chamber as well as the rules of the House limiting the floor comments legislators are able to make after the Republicans used them to silence him.

The filing in Nashville federal court and names GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House administrative officials. It argues that Republicans have on several occasions prohibited Mr Jones from speaking during debates, violating his free speech rights according to both the federal and the state constitution.

He also asserts that his due process rights were not respected as a result of the removal process against him.

The GOP booted Mr Jones from the chamber as well as fellow young Black Democrat Rep Justin Pearson after they used a megaphone to protest and call for gun control measures less than a week after a school shooting in the city led to the death of six people.

Republicans didn’t expel Democratic Rep Gloria Johnson, a white woman, who also took part in the protest. The group became known as the “Tennessee Three” and received national attention.

Mr Jones and Mr Pearson were reappointed to their seats and reelected in the special elections that followed.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday, also argues that Mr Jones should be reappointed to a panel he was removed from and that other benefits should be put back in place, such as his level of seniority and a year’s credit to the state retirement system, in addition to other damages and costs he has incurred.

Republican leaders have said that the removal of Mr Jones and Mr Pearson was needed in order to avoid setting a precedent that would accept the disruption of House business. They argued that the updated rules of the House urge members to be civil and respectful and that they be held accountable.

The lawsuit attempts to stop Mr Sexton as well as the state “from continuing to suppress dissent, whether through the updated House rules or otherwise, and to seek full restoration of the benefits, rights, and privileges that they illegally stripped from him (Jones) in retaliation for his protected speech”.

Justin Jones attends the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation annual Legislative Conference National Town Hall on September 23, 2023 in Washington, DC

The updated rules of the chamber, which are targeted at disruptive members, mean that they can be silenced from a day to as long as the rest of the year if they don’t stay on the subject of the bill up for debate. Mr Jones was previously silenced for part of one day.

When the House voted to silence Mr Jones, Mr Sexton issued a warning to the Democrat regarding referring to bills put forward by the GOP as “reprehensible,” “asinine,” and “insulting”.

Mr Sexton ruled that Mr Jones was out of order on two occasions for saying that members of the chamber should “stop trying to put more guns to start a gun fight in our schools that would not protect our children. What is one little Glock against an AR-15?”

He then added that the state should increase funding for mental health in schools and raise teachers’ salaries instead of adding more police officers to campuses.

House Republicans also put in place a ban on publically holding up signs on both the floor and in committees during proceedings.

A judge in the state blocked the enforcement of the sign ban, siding with civil rights activists that it probably was in violation of free speech rights.

The state responded that the judge stopped “duly-elected legislators from enforcing their own duly-enacted rules”.

The Independent has reached out to the office of Mr Sexton for comment.

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