When ‘decorum’ means ‘mob rule,’ it’s time to break it

by Karen Dolan

In the past few weeks, two young Black lawmakers and a young transgender lawmaker have been punished for “breaching decorum” in conservative-controlled statehouses. 

In Tennessee, after Republican leaders refused to call upon them during regular order and then silenced their mics, state Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson joined grieving protestors in calling for gun safety laws in the wake of a mass shooting at a Christian private school in Nashville. 

Pearson and Jones were both expelled before being reinstated by officials in Nashville and Memphis. Johnson, who is white, was not expelled. 

Montana state Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the state’s only transgender lawmaker, said that supporters of a bill that would prevent transgender youth from receiving life-saving medical treatment will have “blood on their hands.”  

Zephyr wasn’t wrong — without support and medically recommended gender-affirming care, the suicide rate for trans youth is twice what it is for those with such support. Gender-affirming care is proven to save lives. Still, Zephyr was barred from the House floor. She worked from a hallway in the state capitol and could only vote virtually. 

The targeted lawmakers represent minority demographics among their colleagues. The majority white, male, heterosexual and cisgender Republican majorities in both statehouses are the status quo. With their supermajorities, they get to decide what “decorum” means. 

And it’s an apparently flexible definition — Tennessee lawmakers refused to punish a colleague who was credibly accused of committing child sexual abuse and another who was charged with domestic violence. Not even the member who allegedly urinated on another’s office chair was expelled for “breaking decorum.”  

Instead, these three diverse lawmakers “break decorum” with their very presence and speech. 

As Rep. Pearson has suggested, state legislatures that fail to protect minority rights are not a democracy, but a “mobocracy.” In a functioning democracy, minority rights are protected. That’s why the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, while the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law. 

From the movements to end slavery to those against Jim Crow segregation and beyond, Americans have always fought to do away with unjust and immoral mob rule masquerading as “decorum.”  

And as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, “One has the moral obligation to disobey unjust laws.” Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., urged those struggling for justice and equality to “get into good trouble” to “redeem the soul of America.” Similarly, M.K. Gandhi, for whom breaking inequitable laws was key in resisting British colonialism, said, “An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.”  

That’s all the more true when these often gerrymandered, extremist statehouses don’t represent anything close to majority opinion in the first place. 

A majority of Americans oppose anti-transgender legislation and support drag shows. More than two-thirds of Americans support gun control. Americans oppose book banning and nearly 80% report satisfaction with their child’s school curricula, despite the GOP’s rush to punish educators. 

So who are these extremist legislators representing? Special interests like the National Rifle Association, the Tennessee Firearms Association and well-funded far-right Christian nationalist groups. These coordinated ideological groups are creating a fringe “status quo.” Decorum, for them, consists of legislating against anything that doesn’t serve their purposes. 

When undemocratic extremists control what can be said, what else is there to do but to breach decorum by peacefully exercising our First Amendment rights to demand equal protection under the law? When “decorum” means trampling on rights by these lawmakers, the only thing left to do is to be indecorous. 

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.