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by Rep. Mike Stewart
There is no more fundamental American freedom than the freedom of speech. The right of the people to exchange ideas and to protest government actions they find unwise is enshrined in the both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. Defending such essential American rights should be the very first job of our State Government.
The Haslam Administration’s recent efforts to shut down protests on Legislative Plaza goes in the other direction and should be condemned by all Tennesseans, regardless of political persuasion. Legislative Plaza is a public place, owned by the people, paid for by the people, and used by the people for years as a place to exercise their First Amendment rights. Now, all of a sudden, the Haslam Administration is charging citizens for the right to use their own Plaza, limiting citizens’ access to that public space to hours when most citizens with day jobs cannot exercise their free speech rights, and imposing a million dollar insurance requirement that many citizens doubtless cannot satisfy. The intended effect is to close the Legislative Plaza to the very citizens who are supposed to be in command of our democratic state and federal governments.
Administration officials’ suggestion that the new policies are needed to prevent “deteriorating sanitary conditions” and “maintain security and safety” do not hold water. Tennessee has long had laws in place to deal with such issues; if individuals are acting in ways that endanger others, then state and local officials have the power to stop those particular people without at the same time infringing on the rights of other citizens.
At a time when young men and women are putting themselves in harm’s way in war zones halfway around the world to defend our rights, we should be particularly vigilant to preserve those rights at home. The world has always looked to our country to set the example for all peoples desirous of freedom; we should be careful every day to maintain that moral high ground.
It was not long ago that a group of college students led a protest march past what is now Legislative Plaza to the Davidson County Courthouse and successfully persuaded then Mayor Ben West to be the first leader in the South to de-segregate downtown businesses. In that same spirit, we should welcome peaceful protesters to our public spaces whether or not those protesters happen to be promoting ideas that we agree with.
Our Tennessee Constitution reminds us that “all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority.” I call on Governor Haslam to immediately rescind all new policies designed to make peaceful demonstrations more difficult and to thereby return Legislative Plaza to the control of the people of Tennessee.
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