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New House rules for Tennessee’s legislative session could limit speech and silence lawmakers for speaking off topic

Rule 19 is one that many Democrats believe targets two of their members: Rep. Justin J. Pearson (left) and Rep. Justin Jones (right).
Blaise Gainey
Rule 19 is one that many Democrats believe targets two of their members: Rep. Justin J. Pearson (left) and Rep. Justin Jones (right).

Each year, lawmakers vote on a rules package that lays out the policies and procedures that must be followed. In the past, approving rules was not contentious, for the most part. But the current leadership has made several changes limiting speech on the Tennessee House floor.

A list of changes to the rules passed Wednesday.

Rule 49 allows the House Speaker — Cameron Sexton — to pick a length of time for debate on specific bills.

Usually, each lawmaker is given five minutes. But, the Speaker can now give each chamber a total allotted time and allow the members to use it how they choose. Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, pointed out an issue with the rule.

“We have a voucher piece of legislation this year that is a very complex idea and policy. The fact that we can say the time limit is going to be limited to five minutes on the House floor is very concerning,” said Clemmons.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth says the goal is to give more time, not less, to benefit the 24 Democrats and allow them the same amount of time as the 75 Republicans.

Rule 19 is one that many Democrats believe targets two of their members: Rep. Justin J. Pearson (D-Memphis) and Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville).

It allows a member who is called out of order to be silenced for speaking off topic or making disparaging comments about another member. A second violation cuts the lawmakers speaking time from five to two minutes for the remainder of that day and the next. A third violation fully silences them for the same amount of time.

A similar rule was used during the special session in August to silence Rep. Jones.

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, said he liked the rule because too often Jones and Pearson dominate the speech on the floor, hogging the ability to speak.

“The top nine speakers on the House floor over the last year are all from the minority party. You’ve got Shelby County with three hours and 43 minutes. Davidson County, two hours and 16 minutes — one of our newest members from Davidson,” said Zachary.

Those members are Jones and Pearson. The latter took it as a compliment.

“I spend as much time as possible advocating for District 86, and I want to thank you for that — because my constituents’ voices do matter, my constituents’ opinions do matter,” Pearson said. “And any opportunity that I get to advocate for the issues that they care about — whether that’s gun violence or the environment or any of the usurpations of democracy — I will stand here and speak about it.”

No one is prevented from standing up and asking to speak on a bill. The lack of Republicans at the top of that list simply means they are choosing not to speak.

With all the dissent from Democrats, the rules passed on essentially a party line vote — with one Democrat choosing to vote for them: Bolivar Rep. Johnny Shaw.

Now that the rules are established, the House has begun to break out into committees and move on with the business of hearing and passing legislation.

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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