NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Rep. Bruce Griffey's hearing is iffy and getting worse with age.
Seated in the back of the echo-prone House, the 57-year-old Republican said he struggles to hear proceedings when protests get loud outside the chamber. He said he's had particular trouble hearing over a protester out there who loudly calls for removal of the Capitol's bust of a former Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader.
Griffey, who has often found the spotlight through tough-on-immigration bills that have failed, is now contending that protesters who are too loud should be subject to arrest if they refuse to quiet down or go outside. He went to the attorney general to get his opinion about arrest authority in the scenario and emailed legislative leaders about it earlier this month.
Legislative leaders, in statements through spokespeople, showed little appetite for diving into a thorny First Amendment fight.
“If I’m in there and it’s not bothering me, I’m not going to complain,” said Griffey, who added that he got mixed results trying a radio hearing aid. “But if it’s interfering with being able to hear what’s being said on the House floor, if I complain I’m going to ask them to ask the guy to please step outside and protest out there at that level, or tone it down. If you refuse, you’re subject to being arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
The protester, Ashley King, said it wouldn't be appropriate for him to protest at the Capitol when lawmakers return June 1 amid a pandemic. It's still unclear if the public will be allowed in.
“Until we have a cure for COVID-19, I won't be in there yelling," said King, an African American who protests the Confederate bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Rep. G.A. Hardaway sits across from Griffey in the back of the House and said he can hear over the protests. The Memphis Democrat said Griffey should get his seat changed.
“I think it's a terrible precedent to set to start to muzzle the people,” Hardaway said.
Griffey, a Paris lawmaker, asked the attorney general whether officers staffing the Capitol or the Legislature's sergeants-at-arms need legislative leaders' direction to make an arrest if someone "substantially obstruct(s) or interfere(s) with” a “lawful meeting, procession, or gathering by physical action or verbal utterance” with the “intent to prevent or disrupt” the meeting — a misdemeanor offense.
Attorney General Herbert Slatery's opinion: Capitol police don't need authorization from the House or Senate but sergeants-at-arms do, and there's nothing prohibiting those arrests while lawmakers are in session. He did not mention First Amendment implications.
In rare cases, Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers have removed Capitol protesters: for instance, when one last year yelled over House proceedings from the gallery; or when activists have held sit-ins at or by the governor's office and refuse to leave after closing time.
Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton's office said that to their knowledge, no one else has made a complaint similar to Griffey's.
“All Tennesseans have the right to peacefully assemble and to express their views," Sexton spokesperson Doug Kufner said.
Similarly, Senate Speaker Randy McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said, “While there have occasionally been disruptive protesters in the Senate over the years, most are respectful, well-behaved and elicit few complaints from members.”
Griffey likely hasn't helped his cause by ruffling feathers within GOP ranks. For one, he unsuccessfully lobbied Republican Gov. Bill Lee to get his wife a judgeship last year, then Lee's pick for the bench resigned in nine days, saying Griffey and his wife were meddling against her. Griffey disputed the claim.
In his email to legislative leaders, Griffey expressed his “undying support for the First Amendment," but said “those rights end when they interfere with the rights of others and the conduct of legitimate government business/proceedings.”