Democracy is often loud. It is often impassioned against prevailing opinion, be it that of a legislative majority, an ideologically conformist college campus, or an overwhelmingly red or blue community. And yes, it is often rude.
While both legislatures and campuses have a right to enforce a degree of civility, they are both spaces where the maximum latitude to criticize is essential to a functioning democracy. Why is this so hard for many on the right, as well as the left, to understand?
Protect The 1st has had a lot to say of late about the instances of speakers – mostly conservatives – being silenced on university campuses, mostly by progressive students and faculty. But conservative Republican legislators, in states where they have commanding majorities, are willing to demonstrate that they too can be ready to cancel people with contrary views.
So it was with the expulsion of Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the transgender Democrat elected to the Montana Legislature in a district that includes the college town of Missoula. The Montana House debated a measure to ban “gender-affirming care” for minors. The bill later passed by a wide margin and was signed into law by that state’s governor.
Proponents of this legislation argued that in a society that doesn’t allow minors to smoke, buy a lottery ticket, or gamble, it makes sense to restrict changes they can make to their bodies. Rep. Zephyr responded that such restrictions would worsen the high rate of suicide among transgender teens. It is on that basis, she said, that those who vote for the bill would have “blood on your hands.”
Such invective is in keeping with the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan opinion in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” But the Montana Legislature saw it differently. By 68-32 last week, it held that Rep. Zephyr had violated House rules and banned her from the House chamber for the remainder of this legislative year. She will now have to cast her votes remotely. This legislator will be absent from the discussions, deliberations, and horse-trading that occurs as Montana prepares to pass a housing bill and the state budget. “There will be 11,000 Montanans whose representative is missing,” Rep. Zephyr said, calling her expulsion a “nail in the coffin of democracy.”
The U.S Supreme Court took a similar view in Bond v. Floyd in 1966, in which the Court, ruling on First Amendment grounds, reinstated civil rights activist Julian Bond to the Georgia House of Representatives after the House clerk refused to seat him. What was the reason Bond was not seated in accordance with the will of his constituents? He had voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft.
“The manifest function of the First Amendment in a representative government requires that legislators be given the widest latitude to express their views on issues of policy,” the Court declared in 1966. The majority opinion cited the observation of James Madison that the British Parliament had assumed the power to regulate the qualifications of both the electors and the elected. As a result, the Parliament freely adjusted its qualifications to make sure any debate was always rigged for the majority.
Legislative leaders today should avoid rigging the rules against views that defy the majority. They should get used to hearing issues framed in a way they find offensive. They might also want to recognize how self-defeating these heavy-handed tactics can be.
Expulsion valorizes the expelled. It gets them interviews on national media. It raises money from donors across the country. And the expelled always come back.
Julian Bond returned to the Georgia Legislature, where he went on to serve in the House and Senate for twenty years. The two Tennessee state legislators expelled by that state’s House were reinstated with much fanfare. Zoe Zephyr, an obscure politician from a college town, is now a national celebrity.
We will thus predict the re-election of Rep. Zephyr. Agree or disagree with her on transgender issues, pushback from the courts and voters is a sign of health. As Rep. Zephyr says, “You cannot kill democracy that easily.”