Justin Pearson leads protestors from First Baptist Church at Capitol Hill to Legislative Plaza, where organizers addressed the crowd prior to his swearing in. Credit: Connor Daryani/Nashville Banner

As a highly anticipated special session of the Tennessee General Assembly gaveled open, the biggest change produced was a set of rules adopted by the House aimed at stifling dissent. 

“This is an affront to representative democracy,” said Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville) on the House Floor to snaps and hand waves from protestors in the gallery. “I am ashamed that we are sitting here discussing this.”

Powell, Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) and other Democratic legislators lined up to express their concerns over the special rules after the 4 p.m. session began, citing broad language, restrictions on protesters and rules seemingly targeting the April actions of the so-called “Tennessee Three.”

Some of the special package included the following:

  • Flow motion — which allows legislation to quickly pass through the General Assembly without going through regular order — is in effect for the entirety of the special session. 
  • Recording devices are not allowed on the House floor. (Media on the floor is exempt.)
  • A member’s material disruption of the House has escalating consequences for each offense:
    • First offense: the legislator cannot speak for three legislative days.
    • Second offense: the legislator cannot speak for six legislative days.
    • Third offense: the legislator cannot speak for the rest of the session.
  • No flags, signs or banners in the gallery. 
  • A member ruled out of order receives escalating consequences each time it happens.
    • First offense: the legislator forfeits the rest of their time.
    • Second offense: if the body votes that a member is out of order, the member will not be recognized for the rest of the day.  
    • Third offense: the member receives a three-day suspension from discussions.
    • Fourth offense: the member will not be recognized for the rest of the session.
  • If a legislator mentions another legislator’s name, that person immediately gets a minute to respond, and the infringing legislator’s time is forfeited.
  • Noise augmenting devices are prohibited. (This is in response to the actions of Justin Jones, who led protesters in the gallery in chants through a bullhorn in April.)

But Majority Leader William Lamberth and Rep. Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville), who sit on the rules committee and presented them to the house, held firm despite outcry from multiple Democratic legislators. 

“This is actually a constitutional federal republic,” said Lamberth, responding to Rep. Justin Pearson’s (D-Memphis) comment that Tennessee is not a democracy. Pearson was sworn in for the third time this year just 3 hours before the session. 

In the gallery, protesters did their best to remain quiet as the proceedings continued, only getting gaveled down a couple of times. But even during their outbursts, spectators were far quieter than back in April, as only one side of the Gallery was open to the public. The other side was only open to the media and lobbyists. 

“It’s no coincidence that the people are on the left, and the special interests are on the right of the gallery,” said Clemmons.

The proposed rules passed 73-23 after roughly an hour of debate. 

Even prior to Monday’s events, advocates had already given up on the possibility of any restrictions on firearms during the session. Gov. Bill Lee’s call for a special session did not use the word gun once, limiting legislators to file bills revolving around mental health, school security and public safety. Rather than make Tennesseans safer, many of the legislators, organizers and protestors on Monday argued that legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers would instead further antagonize the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Punishing our children for the guns being our No. 1 killer of children is not the answer,” said Anna Caudill at a press conference organized by Moms Demand Action. Outside the press room, candles and slips of paper with the names of Tennesseans who were victims of gun violence lined the hallway leading to the door. Caudill was friends with Katherine Koonce, one of the victims of the Covenant School shooting. One bill that has been filed in the session would allow juveniles to be tried as adults in certain situations, drawing the ire of Democratic legislators.

The House and Senate Floor sessions were not gaveled in until 4 p.m., but for Nashville moms, faith leaders, organizers and the far-right group The Proud Boys, the day started much earlier. Beginning at 8:30 a.m., hundreds of people led by local pastors linked arms around the Capitol to pray as a gaggle of Proud Boys wearing yellow bandanas across their faces and armed with pistols, knives, bats and pepper spray looked on. 

A steady stream of protests and press conferences continued throughout the day, culminating around 1 p.m. Activist organizations including Equity Alliance, Moms Demand Action, Gideon’s Army and TIRRC Votes gathered a group of protestors outside of First Baptist Church at Capitol Hill, accompanied by a handful of Democratic legislators including Rep. Bo Mitchell (D-Nashville), Sen. Charlane Oliver (D-Nashville) and Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D-Nashville). 

Organizers handed out bottles of water, snacks and t-shirts to the crowd of more than a hundred protestors braving the heat on a day that reached 94 degrees. A drum corp played, and spirits were high despite multiple protestors and legislators telling the Banner that they did not expect anything good to come of the session.