Home » News » Judge upholds order against Tenn. House on sign ban

By Ken Paulson, The Free Speech Center, published on August 30, 2023

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People hold signs in the House gallery above the chamber floor advocating for gun law reform during a special session of the state legislature on public safety Monday, Aug. 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. The House banned signs in the galleries, but a Nashville judge issued a temporary order that prevented the House from enforcing it, saying she could not conclude that the ban was a reasonable restriction on speech under the First Amendment.(AP Photo/George Walker IV)

A restraining order preventing the Tennesseee House from banning signs on its premises during its current special legislative session will remain in place, a Nashville judge ruled on Monday, Aug. 28.


Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin concluded that her order preventing enforcement of the House’s sign restrictions should remain intact because plaintiffs in the case are likely to prevail eventually on First Amendment grounds.


“Although the Court appreciates the General Assembly’s desire to maintain decorum and prevent disruptions in its proceedings, the Court cannot conclude that the rule banning signs is reasonable in light of the purposes it could legitimately serve. The rule is so broad that it encompasses behavior that is not disruptive, as is the case here,” Martin wrote in her decision.


Three women ejected for holding small signs

On Aug. 22, three women were ejected from a legislative subcommittee meeting while silently holding small signs at their chests reading, “1 KID > ALL THE GUNS.” The meeting was part of a special session called by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee specifically to explore remedies for gun violence in the wake of a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville earlier this year.


The Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of the three citizens, leading to the restraining order against the Tennessee House on Aug. 23.


Martin accepted the state’s argument that a subcommittee room is not a public forum where the public would have an expectation of speaking, but that any restriction by government on free speech still has to be reasonable.


Judge: Silently holding signs didn’t interfere with process

Martin noted that the rules were ostensibly passed to prevent disruption, but that the silent holding of signs didn’t block anyone’s view or interfere with the legislative process. She also observed that the Tennessee Senate didn’t have a similar sign ban, and that even the House rules wouldn’t have barred message-bearing clothing.


“The Court finds the rule banning all signs overbroad and not designed for the purpose for which it was created—to prevent disruption. It is therefore not reasonably related to the purpose of the forum,” Martin wrote.


The judge’s temporary restraining order has been recast as a temporary injunction, to be revisited at a later hearing.


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