The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The fragile flowers of Tennessee’s GOP legislature contravene a basic right

People protest across the street from the state Capitol in Nashville on July 1. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

THE REPUBLICANS running Tennessee’s legislature must be sensitive souls who quake in the presence of raised voices and tremble when met with dissent. How they manage their own teenagers is anyone’s guess; what’s certain is that they come unhinged when confronted with hecklers who’d hardly rate a glance from Little League umpires, circus clowns or, for that matter, journalists at your average political rally.

How else to explain their legislative temper tantrum when, after encountering peaceful protesters at the Tennessee Capitol grounds for two months, they passed a bill that criminalized camping there, and on state property generally. Doing so will now subject activists, including the nonviolent racial justice ones who have undertaken the recent protests, to a felony charge and prison terms of up to six years.

By way of explaining why they outlawed what most civil liberties experts would consider protected speech, several GOP lawmakers acknowledged that they really don’t like being yelled at. One Republican state senator, Kerry Roberts, said “it’s really hard to be sympathetic to what someone is saying when they are yelling at you, when they’re trying to shame you, when they’re calling you names and so forth.” He said such criticism made him “extremely uncomfortable.” Then there was Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, evidently channelling King George III, who insisted it is a “serious crime” when people “knowingly thumb their nose at authority.”

Let’s hope the Tennessee Republicans never seek employment at an airport ticket counter or, heaven forbid, any department of motor vehicles; it’s equally clear they’re ill-suited to serve as public servants.

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Their thin-skinned righteousness was the animating force behind the legislation, now signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, that tramples on a basic constitutional right. The protesters who have camped out around the clock at the Capitol building in Nashville may be nuisances. They may be annoying. Some may be possessed of poor manners. Yet there are no reports that any have engaged in violence since they first appeared on their daily vigil nearly three months ago, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The lawmakers’ exasperation has led them to make a felony of an act of civil disobedience akin to the nonviolent lunch-counter sit-ins that disrupted daily life in Nashville 60 years ago. Most of those protesters, who were targeting Jim Crow laws, were convicted of disorderly conduct, refused to pay a $50 fine and served a month in the county workhouse. If state prosecutors pursue cases under the state’s new law, today’s racial justice protesters may be treated far more harshly.

The measure creates other new offenses designed to protect first responders. One would criminalize throwing human waste on a police officer — but that would be a misdemeanor, carrying a much more lenient punishment than camping on the Capitol grounds.

The protesters in Nashville have been seeking a meeting with Mr. Lee and the removal of a bust from the Capitol of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. They are patriots, not criminals — even if the fragile flowers in the state’s legislature can’t grasp that.

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