When Justin Pearson, a new Tennessee state representative, was sworn into office last week, he was wearing a West African dashiki. That sparked criticism from his new colleagues on the Republican side, including a suggestion that he explore other careers if he didn’t want to conform to norms and, arguably, the rules on how to dress on the floor of the Tennessee General Assembly.
Is this a sad-but-predictable political dustup in fractured times, or an issue of freedom of expression that should spark larger concerns?
The answer appears to be “yes” and “yes.”
“What we wear is regarded as expressive conduct, particularly where that’s the intent — which is the case here. The Legislature is a government body. Under the First Amendment, the government can’t limit free expression without an overriding societal need, and then must make the restriction as narrow as possible,” said Ken Paulson, a lawyer, First Amendment expert and director of the Free Speech Center. “Maintaining a tradition wouldn’t suffice.”
Pearson has made it clear that he was wearing the dashiki to make a statement.
“This dress is resistance,” Pearson said in a story reported by WPLN public radio in Nashville. “This afro is resistance. What we are doing here is subver
sive to the status quo, and I think that’s going to continue to make people uncomfortable.”
Republicans who took umbrage said Pearson was not following tradition and rules for appearance on the House floor. However, the General Assembly’s rules of order state only that specifics are up to the House Speaker, although it has been tradition for men to wear a suit and tie and women to wear formal business attire.
What turned it into a bigger story was a snarky reaction from the Tennessee House Republicans on Twitter. “If you don’t like the rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.”
“Thank you to every Black Ancestor who made this opportunity possible,” was part of Pearson’s Twitter reply.
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