NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A judge ruled to let people bring signs back into the Tennessee House's hearings on Wednesday, followed hours later by more disarray during a committee debate on allowing more guns into schools in a special session in reaction to a deadly Nashville school shooting in March.
When a bill that would let people with carry permits bring guns to public schools came up, a Republican tried to shut down debate. Some Democrats — including the once-expelled Rep. Justin Jones — were incredulous they didn't first get called on to speak. After several chaotic minutes, lawmakers agreed during a split vote to keep debating.
Ultimately, the bill failed on a tie vote, prompting cheers from the audience.
“Don’t be cowards. Have this discussion,” Jones said after the motion to end debate.
The action came a day after state troopers removed three people who held small signs urging gun control at a hearing, prompting the lawsuit Wednesday over the new ban. Earlier this year, Republicans drew attention for expelling Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, two young Black Democratic lawmakers who have since been reappointed and reelected, for breaking procedural rules during a gun control protest on the House floor.
This week's removals came at the order of a GOP subcommittee chair, who later instructed troopers to kick the rest of the public out of the committee room after deeming the crowd too unruly. That included grieving parents closely connected to the school shooting, who broke down in tears at the decision.
The emotional and chaotic scene irked both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, while others pointed out that although signs were banned, the public could still freely carry firearms inside the legislative office building. Signs were present during a House committee hearing Wednesday morning.
Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin's ruling came within hours of the filing of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of the three women who were removed because of their signs: Allison Polidor, Maryam Abolfazli and Erica Bowton.
Republicans, who have a supermajority in the House, signed off on a new slate of strict rules this week during a special session that was called by Gov. Bill Lee in reaction to the shooting that killed six people at The Covenant School, including three students. GOP leaders are not expected to take up gun control despite the governor's push for legislation to keep guns away from people deemed to pose harm to themselves or others.
The Senate has targeted a narrow, more modest agenda, advancing bills on gun safes and locks, among others, diminishing the chances that the House's wide-ranging priorities would pass.
The House, meanwhile, has moved forward proposals without the Senate, including one to let people with carry permits bring guns to schools. The House has also advanced a bill that would largely shield autopsies of children who are homicide victims from public view, which many Covenant School parents are supporting.
Republican lawmakers have approved severely limiting the public from accessing the Senate and House galleries where people have traditionally been allowed to watch their government in action. The Senate did not ban signs.
A hearing on the temporary injunction has been scheduled for Sept. 5. However, lawmakers are expected to adjourn by Thursday, meaning there is a limited window for people to display signs anyway.
A spokesperson for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who is named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Democracy depends on people’s ability to express their opinions to their elected representatives on issues they care about, and this unreasonable rule stood in the way of people fully participating in the democratic process,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Kathryn Sinback said in a news release.
On the first day of the special session Monday, House Republicans approved a new set of procedural rules that carried harsh penalties for lawmakers deemed too disruptive or distracting, and they banned visitors from carrying signs inside the Capitol and in legislative hearing rooms. While House GOP leaders have defended restrictions on lawmakers, they've been largely silent on why they also went after signs.
Polidor, a gun control advocate from Nashville, was escorted out of a hearing room because she was holding a sign that said “1 KID” is greater than “ALL THE GUNS.”
While firearms have long been allowed inside Tennessee’s legislative building, hand-held signs have been criticized by lawmakers as being a potential safety hazard and a distraction from proceedings.
In 2017, signs were briefly prohibited from Cordell Hull — the building that contains both legislative committee rooms and offices for lawmakers and staffers — following demonstrations over refugee resettlements, Medicaid expansion and gas taxes.
That policy was then altered to allow the public to hold small letter-size signs inside Cordell Hull, but banned any signs on sticks or poles.
In the years since, members of the public have repeatedly shown up with signs that reflect a wide range of policy stances.