The right to reasonably and peacefully dissent has long been one of our country’s most guarded and fundamental ways of life.
But now it appears that House Republicans want to control what the means by which other members of Congress object to questionable legislation. And so a new battle has begun — and on the very day of the new Congress with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) leading the way.
“We have a right to dissent,” said the civil rights icon during his recent speech as he urged the House to reject a new rule that would hamper efforts by members of Congress, primarily Democrats in this instance, to live-stream from the House floor, take still photographs and record audio and video.
The rule allows for House members to be fined up to $2,500 should they violate the new rule.
Some see the rule as a response to the sit-in Democrats held last year in efforts to pressure Republicans to vote on gun control legislation. When the GOP leaders had the official cameras shut down, the Democrats turned to social media, live-streaming their actions from their phones.
Lewis, an integral force behind the sit-in last summer, stated that fines will not deter him from his duty to speak out if the House of Representatives takes actions that fail to reflect the will of the American people.
“We have the right to protest for what is right,” Lewis further said. “Regardless of rule or no rule, we cannot and will not be silenced.”
A spokesperson for the Republican House leadership, in an interview with a reporter for Mother Jones, said the creation of the rule was meant to “ensure that order and decorum are preserved in the House of Representatives so lawmakers can do the people’s work.”
But in a statement released in late December when the fine was first proposed, several Democrats, including senior Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, referred to the GOP effort as an “unconstitutional gag rule” of “unprecedented” proportions.
The statement went on to say that they saw the rule as a means to “undermine the rights of members in the Minority to freely express their views on the House floor, which is a critical means by which Members communicate to the American public.”
“It is particularly egregious that such a controversial and potentially unlawful change is being implemented in the complete absence of hearings or input from legal experts, let alone the Minority,” Conyers and his colleagues conclude.
After some debate and in a response to the sharp criticisms of the Democratic leaders, Republicans revised the proposal to allow members of Congress to appeal the fine to the House Ethics Committee.
Still, it remains to be seen if the rule will even stand up in court when challenged for its legality.
One member of Congress and an ardent supporter and leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus called for the elimination of the rule noting the importance of more, not less, transparency.
“Freedom of speech is one of our nation’s most sacred tenets,” said Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.). “Levying fines on members in response to our sitting in and speaking out on gun violence, an issue about which we are extremely passionate and that has so adversely affected too many of our communities, goes against the very spirit of what it means to live in the land of the brave and the free. This is the ‘people’s house.’ Threatening to fine us is an attempt to suppress our ability to exercise freedom of expression that in turn suppresses the voices of the very people who sent us to Washington to advocate on their behalf.
“I have built a career on being a voice for the voiceless,” Wilson said. “There are many battles to come — from saving Obamacare to passing sensible immigration and gun control measures. This is not the time to be silent and we will continue to do whatever we must to be heard.”