AG goes to bat for House ban on signs, doesn’t mention Senate keeping old rules in place

State Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is calling on Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin to dissolve the temporary restraining order blocking the House from enforcing a ban on people carrying small signs in the chamber’s galleries or in committee rooms. [UPDATE: Chancellor Martin on Monday retained the injunction on the sign ban.]

Skrmetti said the court has no jurisdiction to intervene in rules governing activities inside the Capitol complex and that a sign ban has been in place for years without challenge.

The historical record tells a different story.

A federal court intervened in 1965 when the state Senate decided to block reporters and photographers for The Tennessean from entering the chamber in retribution for refusing to leave a committee room when members wanted to take a vote behind closed doors. U.S. District Judge William E. Miller, who had been appointed to the bench Dwight Eisenhower and later elevated to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals by Richard Nixon, found a resolution barring the newspaper “creates a deterrent to the free an unfettered expression of ideas, views, and opinions which the First Amendment, as construed by the Supreme Court, was designed to inhibit.”

The reporters were let back into the chamber and the Senate dropped efforts to block the paper in the future.

“The General Assembly has long recognized that permitting signs in the galleries can disrupt legislative business,” the AG argued in a motion filed Thursday. The filing added that “a similar restriction on hand-held signs at the seat of the legislature has been in place for years,” citing a December 2017 news story about a ban on hand-carried signs being put into effect by the General Assembly when it moved into the Cordell Hull Building in 2017.

But the filing doesn’t include subsequent steps to do away with the blanket ban less than a month later, after then-Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) announced plans to ask for an attorney general’s opinion on its constitutionality. No opinion appears to have been forthcoming after the updated policy said: “small letter sized signs that do not obstruct the view of visitors are acceptable.”

The rule on letter-sized signs had been in place ever since – and remains the rule in the Senate even after the House made its change last week. Skrmetti’s filing doesn’t address the split views between the chambers about whether signs are acceptable. In fact, the document mostly refers to the interests of the General Assembly as a whole rather than just a one of the two bodies it is comprised of.

In Martin’s order agreeing to hear arguments, the judge said she found her earlier decision to issue the temporary restraining order was “was proper and consistent” with Tennessee law and that her quick decision to block the rules had come because of a “the lack of complexity to the relevant facts and the discrete nature of the legal issues for consideration.”

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