Item: Dem. US Senator Elizabeth Warren silenced on Senate floor as she read a letter criticizing AG nominee Jeff Sessions.
Item: GOP State Senator Janet Nguyen silenced and removed from Senate chamber after criticizing former State Sen. Tom Hayden (deceased).
In two remarkably similar incidents, lawmakers on both coasts were muzzled recently, on the floor of their respective Senate chambers. Both episodes are shameful.
Now, here I’ll have to ask readers to check their personal support or animosities toward the personalities involved – notably Messrs. McConnell, Sessions, Monning, Lara and Hayden, and Senators Warren and Nguyen. Any argument that goes “well, s/he sucks so it’s okay” won’t work in this case. This bi-partisan question is: are you okay with muzzling lawmakers who are going about the business of the offices they hold?
In both cases, a Senator rose to critique another law maker, one living (Sessions) and under review for the AG’s job, and one dead (Hayden) and recently honored in the same chamber. Procedural rules of order and decorum were cited as support for the actions, and the Senators were ruled out-of-order. Ms. Nguyen was further ordered to be escorted from the room (video in the link above).
So, what we have here is a failure to reconcile internal rules of a government body with the Constitutional dictate that government shall not squelch anybody’s freedom of expression. That this occurred in the very legislative chambers where such freedoms ought to be sacrosanct adds a further ironic touch.
Obviously, political expression is the kind held most dear in the First Amendment, as it goes to the heart of liberty (other varieties, like commercials, get less respect). But free speech is not absolute – there can be limitations regarding so-called “time, place and manner” (as opposed to the “content” of the speech or writing) and some expressions are unprotected (think ‘obscenity,’ if you care to define it). With that short and incomplete course in mind, was the Constitution offended?
Here, the national GOP gets the slightly worse of it on the strict legalities (hang on, the CA Dems’ turn in the box is a-coming). The US Senate rule does go to ‘content’ (essentially: thou shalt not criticize a fellow Senator). The CA rule presumably (it was never specified) goes to parliamentary procedure – by its nature much more like ‘time, place and manner’. Of the two, the national rule is worse on its face – although I believe they are both out-of-line as applied here.
But on the optics and abject failure to learn abundant recent lessons, the state senate Dems have no peer, here. Less than a month ago, we all saw the Warren uproar, which thereby garnered many, many times the attention that her wee-hours argument would’ve otherwise received. Sympathies and campaign contributions poured in, t-shirts were commissioned, and a pungent new phrase was added to the liberal lexicon (“She was warned … nevertheless she persisted”).
So, what did our local Solons do? Instead of tolerating a brief critique, given first in Vietnamese and thus aimed to please her Garden Grove constituency, acting Chair Lara heard Sen. Monning’s objection, turned-off her microphone and had her physically removed by burly sergeants-at-arms as she repeated those sentiments in English. We can therefore add physical (wo)manhandling to the psychological bullying of the Warren incident. Yikes – foot, meet the bullet that needn’t have been even loaded, much less fired.
To their very partial credit, the CA Dem leadership has worked to defuse the incident, promising a bi-partisan investigation, future preventive measures and offering Sen. Nguyen floor time to repeat the speech (she declined). Contrast the national GOP, where Sen. McConnell’s testosterone supplements have had to be suspended (okay, that’s fake news) – but still, it’s too little, and too late.
This pair of incidents is kind-of delicious, in that together they filter-out the partisan outrage factor. They are also heartening, in that they caused such a ruckus that they reconfirm Americans’ dedication to free speech principles. At least we can agree on something.
May we never see their like, ever again.