Tennessee’s Silent Uprising: When Holding a Sign is Mightier than the Gun

Imagine a world where you can carry a concealed weapon into a school, but you’re barred from silently holding up a sheet of paper in the same state’s legislative chambers. Sounds dystopian, right? Yet, it’s precisely the picture that was painted in Tennessee this past week.

In an audacious move that’s left many free speech proponents reeling, Tennessee’s GOP-dominated legislature prioritized gun rights while simultaneously clamping down on basic free speech rights. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of what went down.

A bill sailed through during a special legislative session, focusing on “public safety.” It would permit specific individuals, like off-duty law enforcement officers, former military members, and residents with an enhanced carry permit, to bring guns into schools. Meanwhile, in the same session, GOP representatives shrugged off numerous Democrat-backed proposals calling for stricter gun regulations.

But the real twist in the story came when a new rule, apparently targeted to stifle protesters, emerged. This rule prohibits individuals from displaying even tiny placards in specific areas of the capitol, such as during committee hearings. The restraint on expression became painfully apparent when protesters, during a heated hearing, held up standard-sized sheets of paper, many boldly declaring, “1 Kid > All the Guns.”

Republicans, in a show of force, commanded the state highway patrol to remove these silent demonstrators, leading to scenes reminiscent of civil disobedience movements of yesteryears. As protester Allison Polidor got escorted out, her voice rang out, “This isn’t what democracy looks like.” And she’s right; it’s a vision of democracy handcuffed and muzzled.

In an ironic twist, while silent protesters wielding sheets of paper were ousted, those concealing weapons were granted a free pass. The message was clear: In Tennessee, guns have more rights than words.

Further choking free expression, these new regulations cap the number of individuals allowed in the capitol’s rotunda, a traditionally open space for citizens to share their views. And in a move that tilts the balance of power dangerously, the state Speaker of the House can now muzzle fellow representatives at their discretion.

The Covenant Families Action Fund birthed from the aftermath of a devastating school shooting, summed up the sentiments of many: “Tennessee should protect speech rights… Instead, with the new ‘no sign’ rule, we felt we lost a bit of dignity in our identity as parents of survivors.”

State Rep. Justin Jones, who’s been in the GOP’s crosshairs for championing gun reform, poignantly pointed out the blatant disregard for the state’s constitution, stating, “The Tennessee Constitution says that the People’s House, the doors shall be open. But instead, we have cordoned off the rotunda…”

In today’s Tennessee, it seems, that the silent protest of a sheet of paper poses a greater threat than concealed firearms. For all our young, engaged readers, this isn’t just Tennessee’s story. It’s a narrative of democracy tested, and it’s upon us to decide which direction it goes from here.