The Right Wants to Have Censorship Both Ways
Three weeks ago, the Tennessee legislature voted to expel state Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson from the House for speaking out against gun violence after a deadly school shooting rocked Nashville. Last week, the Montana legislature voted to bar Representative Zooey Zephyr from the House floor for speaking out against an anti-trans law that would prevent minors from obtaining gender-affirming care in the state. The events are just the latest example of a pattern of “pick and choose” censorship that has taken hold of American politics.
The first amendment of the U.S. constitution ensures freedom of speech, with some exceptions. Speech that provokes violence, intimidation, or spreads lies is not protected, meaning someone can be charged criminally for freedom of speech violations, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
In the recent cases of Jones, Pearson, and Zephyr, all three refused to be silenced on their respective House floors, breaking what Republicans say are House rules of decorum. Jones and Pearson (and fellow lawmaker Gloria Johnson, who was not expelled), led a protest in the Tennessee House calling for gun reform. Zephyr chided fellow lawmakers about the risk of banning gender-affirming care for minors, then raised her microphone in solidarity with protestors in the Montana House gallery.
Neither event spread violence, intimidation, or lies toward legislators. Driven by the voices of their constituents, these representatives were calling for action during a period of massive upheaval that has some politicians scrambling to maintain hold of the predominantly white, male powers that carved our country’s past, but don’t have to pave its future.
The Republican Party often cries free speech violation while quietly censoring discourse that disagrees with their ideologies. There’s always something to pin a constitutional breach on: Donald Trump’s removal from Twitter after he tweeted support for the insurrectionists that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021 (he’s since been allowed back after Elon Musk took over the company); or pushback against diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that weed out hate speech but have some people claiming they just “can’t say anything anymore.”
Yet simultaneously, Republicans are banning books, panicking over critical race theory that has only seen limited implementation in K-12 schools, and prohibiting House representatives from voicing dissent, despite the history of dissent this country is built on.
The first woman ever elected to federal office – Jeannette Rankin, House representative from Montana – also made history as the only legislator to vote against attacking Japan after the 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing. “As a woman,” she said, “I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.” Rankin was accused of disloyalty and vilified by the press, fellow policymakers, and the public; she stood her ground through it all. Eight decades later, her dissent in the House is cited as admirable, honorable, and American, through and through. Given time, fellow Montanan Zephyr’s dissent will likely be looked on as the same.
The right’s attempts to censor these young, Black, Brown, and trans legislators don’t seem to be playing out as they’d like. Yesterday, Zephyr declared she’s suing the state, Montana House Speaker Matt Regier, and Sergeant at Arms Bradley Murfitt for her removal from the House floor. The attention the issue has drawn from the rest of the nation has put trans rights in the spotlight and made Zephyr a widely-known activist. Tennessee’s Jones and Pearson have received the same widespread recognition, and were reappointed to their former House positions just days after their expulsion.
Without the voices of these three politicians, the needs of the thousands of people they represent wouldn’t be heard at all. Decisions that affect rural and urban, young and old, Black and White voters need to be made by representatives from all corners of the country, not by a narrow subgroup that never reflected the diversity of the people who live here.
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One More Thing: Bird Flu Update
Deaths among poultry and wild birds due to avian flu have reached the highest levels ever seen in the U.S., and people are concerned for several reasons.
First: this avian flu affects commercial poultry, and if one case is found in a poultry barn, every bird in the facility – even if they weren’t in the same barn – must be “depopulated,” which is industry slang for killed. On average, it takes a poultry producer about 70 days to repopulate their barns after an avian flu outbreak, said researcher Yuko Sato from Iowa State University during a press briefing last week. Poultry are more likely to contract bird flu if they’re near waterfowl, which have seen the highest transmission rates among wild birds. Farms near bodies of water with ducks and geese, for example, are at a higher risk.
Second: there is potential for this to turn into a human pandemic. The probability is still quite low, but bird flu has been known to pass to humans who have had contact with infected birds. About 40% of these human infections have resulted in fatality. Poultry handlers are at a heightened risk, which can be reduced by wearing gloves, face masks, and washing hands after contact. To date, researchers have not found any gene mutations that indicate a virus adaptation that would thrive in humans, according to UMass-Boston researcher Nichola Hill.
Public health experts are still paying close attention to the outbreak as it evolves because as both researchers said in last week’s press briefing, they can “call for some predictions, but it’s really hard to say what’s going to happen next.” Handle your birds with care, folks.