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Expulsion of Tennessee Lawmakers Jeopardizes Democracy

US Officials Need to Tackle Systemic Racism, Protect Free Speech

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raise their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee, US.  © 2023 George Walker IV/AP Photo

Yesterday in the United States, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black lawmakers from the democratic party, for peacefully protesting congressional inaction on gun violence in the wake of a recent school shooting in Nashville. A third vote to expel Representative Gloria Johnson, a white woman who protested alongside Jones and Pearson, failed. While she remains a member of the Tennessee legislature, the shocking move to expel these lawmakers means voters in Jones’ and Pearson’s districts have been deprived of their duly elected representatives.

While the Tennessee House of Representatives has the power to hold such a vote, until yesterday it had only expelled two members since the Civil War. During Thursday’s expulsion hearings, House members described poor behavior from representatives, including alleged fights and an instance in which one member called for someone to be put “on a leash,” referring to either Jones or Pearson. No expulsion actions were taken in these cases.

The right to free speech and peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy that protects everyone’s human rights. The expulsion of two members for exercising these rights, whether or not they violate rules of decorum, is an extreme overreach that constitutes a serious violation of fundamental rights. President Biden spoke out against the expulsion, calling it “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.” State governments and the US Congress should ensure their officials uphold and protect the right to free speech and peaceful protest.

Yesterday’s actions in the Tennessee legislature should also be understood in the context of racially discriminatory violations of the right to vote. Gerrymandering efforts in the state of Tennessee have resulted in the extreme dilution of voting power for Black and other voters of color. Gerrymandering that results in racially disparate impacts on the right to vote violates US obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Yesterday’s actions in Tennessee are blatant reminders of the harm to democracy that comes from a failure in the United States to prevent overt racism and to dismantle structural racism.

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