Nashville judge rules protest signs can continue in Tennessee special legislative session on public safety, guns

Staff photo by Andy Sher / Allison Polidor, Ashley Warbington and Maryam Abolfi speaker to reporters following a judge’s ruling allowing protest signs to be carried during Tennessee's special legislative session.
Staff photo by Andy Sher / Allison Polidor, Ashley Warbington and Maryam Abolfi speaker to reporters following a judge’s ruling allowing protest signs to be carried during Tennessee's special legislative session.

NASHVILLE — A Davidson County chancellor ruled Monday that Tennessee House Republicans’ rule banning visitors from carrying small handheld signs in the chamber’s galleries and committees will continue to be blocked under the temporary restraining order she issued last week as lawmakers meet in special session.

Chancellor Anne Martin’s 14-page opinion was issued hours after the 55-minute hearing she held earlier in the day in which lawyers working for Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti argued the chancellor went beyond her authority in blocking the signs during the special session last week.

Lawmakers hope to address issues raised by the March 27 mass shooting at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville where six people died, three of them children.

“The court finds the state has no interest in enforcing an unconstitutional restriction,” Martin wrote in her ruling, adding that a temporary restraining order carries minimal risk of irreparable harm.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of three women, all mothers of schoolchildren. They and other critics have been protesting Republicans’ refusal to consider measures such as emergency orders of protection to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.

House Republicans have maintained the rule had previously been in place but rarely enforced.

Nashville police say the shooter at The Covenant School, a 28-year-old former student, was under a doctor’s care for unspecified mental issues.

Last week, protests over GOP lawmakers’ refusal to consider passing emergency orders of protection erupted. Allison Polidor, Erica Bowton and Maryam Abolfazli — all three mothers of school students at other schools — were ejected from the House Civil Justice Subcommittee last week for carrying signs. Polidor’s sign read “1 Child > All the Guns,” which a number of protesters have been carrying.

“In support of their showing irreparable harm, plaintiffs have submitted declarations and video footage that demonstrates they were peaceably viewing and participating in the legislative hearing, in the legislative proceedings, and were removed from the forum after they would not put away their signs,” Martin wrote. “Plaintiffs’ conduct of silently holding small signs cannot be said to have disrupted House proceedings.”

ACLU attorney Stella Yarbrough argued in favor of the mothers’ challenge of the rules.

“The government never has a legitimate government interest to infringe on people’s constitutional rights,” Yarbrough told Martin during the nearly hourlong hearing.

Assistant Attorney General Cody Brandon argued such restrictions have been upheld multiple times in other forums.

“Tennessee is not alone” when it comes to imposing such restrictions, Brandon told Martin.

The House approved the rule for the special session behind closed doors last week during an unannounced committee meeting. It was later approved on the chamber floor along partisan lines.

Polidor later told reporters a loss would “be demoralizing, and it will feel like our democratic rights are … being taken away from us.”

“I showed up last week for my very first committee hearing, and I was carried out,” she added. “I know my constitutional rights. You don’t have to be an attorney to know what your constitutional rights are. I have a right to stand up here to talk about protecting children. And I did not know that I would have to just protect my constitutional rights along the way.”

“I am the face of every mother in America that is just dead tired of seeing the news and watching our children being massacred every day and our lawmakers doing nothing to protect them,” Polidor said.

It not immediately clear whether Attorney General Skrmetti would appeal the ruling.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-285-9480.

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