Tennessee lawmaker facing expulsion defends actions on behalf of student protesters

A hand holds onto an in-focus sign that reads Justice For The Tennessee Three in uppercase black letters on a landscape white piece of copy paper.
Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson and two other Democratic state lawmakers are facing expulsion from their seats after they interrupted a legislative session to amplify student protesters calling for stricter gun laws. (Seth Herald / Getty Images)

Update: The Tennessee House voted Thursday to expel Democratic Reps. Justin Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville, the chamber’s two youngest Black members. A resolution to expel Democrat Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, a retired teacher who is white, narrowly failed.

Before Justin Pearson was elected to the Tennessee House, before he gained acclaim for stopping an oil pipeline project planned for his neighborhood, he was a student in Memphis schools who wanted a textbook. 

Pearson, then 15, brought the issue to the Memphis City Schools board. The next day, the books were found sitting in storage. His principal was reprimanded, and district officials demanded that school leaders across the city prove that they had handed out textbooks.

“Justin Pearson may have been without a government textbook for the first 11 weeks of school,” The Commercial Appeal wrote about the Mitchell High sophomore in 2010, “but he has learned one thing about democracies: Embarrassing elected officials in public meetings gets action.” 

Now, as Pearson channels the frustrations of a new generation of student activists, he’s elicited action from lawmakers that could cost him the elected seat he only recently won.

The House leadership on Monday began rare proceedings to expel Pearson and two other Democratic lawmakers from the House over their role in a disruption at the Capitol last week, during which they interrupted a legislative session to help amplify student protesters calling for stricter gun laws in response to the deadly March 27 school shooting in Nashville.

In expulsion resolutions introduced late Monday, the House leadership said Reps. Pearson, Justin Jones of Nashville, and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville brought “disorder and dishonor” to the chamber by speaking from the podium without being recognized and disrupting legislative business. The lawmakers, House Speaker Cameron Sexton said, distracted from the shooting victims and the protesters’ calls by calling attention to themselves.

“They had no authority to do that,” Sexton told reporters Monday.

The resolution came amid a House floor session Monday evening, following another day of student protests at the Capitol.

Pearson defended his actions on behalf of the high school and college-age students who filled the Capitol with chants of “Save our kids!” and “Not one more!” In a letter to the House, Pearson wrote it was “untenable” to hear the chants from mostly young people and “do nothing — say nothing.”

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In a letter to House leadership explaining his actions, Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, told lawmakers gun violence hit close to home. (Courtesy of the State of Tennessee)

“To serve people and to represent them well is to elevate the issues when they are being ignored, and to do all that you can within your power to make sure their voices are heard,” Pearson told Chalkbeat in an interview on Tuesday. 

Pearson already had a fraught relationship with Republican leadership, who suggested the 28-year-old legislator “explore a different career opportunity” after he broke Capitol clothing norms and wore a West African dashiki to his first swearing-in.

“We aren’t being expelled because we broke House decorum rules. That’s what’s been written on paper,” Pearson told Chalkbeat. “We’re being expelled because we spoke up about the need for gun reform and legislation that actually protects kids and communities.”

The issues hit home for Pearson: His classmate Larry Thorn and his mentor Yvonne Nelson were both fatally shot in Memphis in the last year, he told lawmakers in the letter. 

GOP leaders haven’t taken up the call for stricter gun laws. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted to defer action on gun legislation to next year. The latest proposals from Gov. Bill Lee would invest in hiring armed guards for schools, fortifying school buildings, and providing extra mental health resources.

Pearson echoed common criticisms of those measures, saying they lead to overpoliced students and don’t address root problems. He’s talked about this with his mother, a public school teacher.

“My mom doesn’t want to become a sheriff,” Pearson said.

Final votes on the expulsions are expected Thursday. It takes a two-thirds vote of the House to expel a member. 

House lawmakers have been expelled only three times before, The Tennessean reported

One lawmaker who wasn’t expelled, Johnson noted, was former Rep. David Byrd, a Waynesboro Republican accused of sexually assaulting teenagers before he was elected to office. In that case, Sexton called for an attorney general’s opinion on the matter, calling it “complex and unprecedented.”

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On Monday, Sexton did not indicate whether he would seek a similar opinion in the case of Pearson, Jones, and Johnson.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, told Chalkbeat that she wants to keep communication open among Republican leaders and House Democrats. “Temperatures flared” on the floor that day, Camper recalled, as she tried to quiet the three lawmakers and move forward. 

Camper denounced the expulsion measures and described the three lawmakers’ actions as “good trouble,” alluding to the guiding principle of the civil rights leader John Lewis, who died in 2020. As a veteran congressman, Lewis staged a sit-in on the House floor in 2016. He, too, was calling for gun control in the wake of a mass shooting, Camper pointed out.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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