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  • Writer's pictureHolly Corbett

What Banning Rep. Zooey Zephyr From The House Floor Means For Democracy

Rep. Zooey Zephyr hugs a supporter
Rep. Zooey Zephyr hugs a supporter at the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont., on Wednesday, ... [+]COPYRIGHT 2023 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Banning Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the first openly transgender lawmaker in the Montana legislature who was elected with more than 80% of the vote, from participating in debates on the House floor for the remainder of the 2023 legislative session goes against democracy. Rep. Zephyr was blocked after speaking out last week against those who voted to support a ban on gender-affirming care known as Senate Bill 99, which Gov. Greg Gianforte has now signed into law, saying they would have 'blood on their hands,' in reference to the high suicide rate for transgender youth.

Freedom of speech is a pillar of the democratic process to allow for open debate without fear of censure or being retaliated against. Also vital to democracy is enabling legislators to represent the will of the people who voted them into office, such as by holding hearings and developing legislation.

“I decided the moment the censure went through that it was unfair, it was undemocratic, but I needed to be as close to the House of Representatives if I was going to be at my most effective on behalf of my constituents,” said Rep. Zephyr in an ABC News interview, explaining how she worked from the hallway of the House chambers since she couldn’t go inside.

In another recent interview with MSNBC, Rep. Zephyr said, “I show up every day ready to represent the constituents who sent me there. I prep, I’m ready to speak on bills, I’m ready to lend my voice to the debates. But now that I’ve been undemocratically barred from the House Chamber, I have to work really hard to make sure I catch legislators as they come in and get my notes to them so that, despite the circumstances, my constituents have some small semblance of representation in that chamber.”

Recently, there have been other examples of lawmakers essentially engaging in “cancel culture” towards officials who speak out on social issues. The House chamber in Tennessee voted to expel two elected Black officials from the legislature, Representatives Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, while sparing a third white official from being expelled, Rep. Gloria Johnson, when the three protested for stricter gun control laws after the Covenant school shooting in Nashville. This was just the third time since the Civil War era that the Tennessee House had expelled a lawmaker, according to the New York Times. The two lawmakers have since been reinstated.

It’s not only elected officials experiencing retaliation for dissenting on social issues; businesses are also being impacted. For example, Disney just filed a lawsuit against the Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his alleged retaliation to Disney's opposition to the Parental Rights in Education bill, a.k.a. the 'Don't Say Gay' bill, which blocked classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity. After Disney publicly opposed the legislation, the Florida government moved to take away Disney’s self-governing powers. Disney, in turn, is suing Gov. DeSantis for retaliating against the business for expressing a contrary opinion as is protected by First Amendment rights.

Censorship and challenges to free speech are also extending to the books available to read. According to the American Library Association (ALA), there was a record-breaking 38% increase in attempts to ban books in 2022 as compared to the previous year, meaning people or groups are objecting and requesting a book be removed from public libraries and schools.

Last year, more than 2,500 books were objected to (as compared to 566 in 2019). PEN America created an Index of School Book Bans, and found 41% of book bans are tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools. The majority of the books banned were written by or about people of color or those who identify as LGBTQ.

“Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in a statement. "The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.”

The word democracy comes from two Greek words, ‘demo,’ which translates to ‘the people,’ and ‘kratia,’ which translates to ‘power,’ or literally ‘rule by the people.’ Freedom of speech and free debate are central to democracy, where the people don’t always agree, but they have the right to voice their opinions and to have an open debate. Lawmakers’ ability to use their voices to represent their constituents should be protected. Businesses having a right to voice an opinion on legislation that impacts their workforce should be protected. Parents’ and students’ right to choose the books they want to read should be protected. If knowledge is power, information and voices must not be censored if we are truly to give power to the people.

*Article originally published in Forbes


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