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Victor Ashe Commentary: An Assault on Free Speech Was Thwarted Yesterday by the Tennessee General Assembly

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The Joint Legislative Committee on Rules and Regs of the Tennessee General Assembly met Tuesday, August 15 at the Legislative Plaza to consider the new bylaws of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission. While no vote was taken, it was clear that the bipartisan committee was genuinely disturbed by what it heard.

Chaired by State Rep Jeremy Faison, the committee debated for some time with Alexander Rieger from the AG’s staff and Commission Chair Tom Smith on whether these revised bylaws were simply policies or actually rules. Rieger appeared very unsure of himself and perplexed by the questions posed to him. He appeared to lack self confidence in his own legal opinions.

While, this question of policy vs. rules may seem arcane to many, the practical effect is that the Museum Commission with policies may proceed on its own and with rules it must secure approval from the General Assembly to enact them.

I argued that regardless of whether it is policy or rules, sound judgment and desire to listen to lawmakers would strongly suggest that the Commission should defer to the lawmakers and seek common ground. Otherwise, it is going to be a rocky and turbulent time for the Museum Commission as it moves into its new building at the end of 2018.

As one member, I strongly objected to being mandated to sign a code of conduct form which says I would agree to resign from the body if asked. Not a single board in state government requires this. Senator Mike Bell told the audience that he himself would not sign such a form.

Senator Bo Watson, a Commission member and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would not sign such a form. I told the Committee in open session that I would not sign in part due to the recommendation of Speaker McNally not to sign it. McNally only six weeks ago had re-appointed me to the Commission.

The requirement was roundly criticized by several joint committee members and defended by none.

The section stating that a member could not disparage or malign the Commission triggered numerous questions and misgivings from Lawmakers. Senator Mae Beavers also voiced concern that no one has told the public how much of the $40 million for the new Museum has been raised and how much was being paid to those who are hired to raise it.

At the end of the hearing, Museum Commission Chair Tom Smith agreed the Museum commission needed to take another look at the bylaws when the Commission meets in Knoxville on October 9. Time will tell if a majority of the Commission will act consistent with the views voiced at the hearing.

What was very clear is that the lawmakers were well prepared for the hearing and knew what the issues were. State Rep John Ragan asked if the Commission had a public forum on its meeting agenda. The answer was NO but now the Commission will need to discuss the merits of this idea. This writer thinks it is needed just as city councils across Tennessee hear from the public. Taxpayers should be allowed to speak directly to the Commission.

Ashley Howell, the new executive director of the Museum, was put forward to raise the issue of accreditation and some thought she was suggesting that these new bylaws were part of that process. No one on the legislative committee was buying the suggestion that restraining public discussion by Commission members was necessary to secure accreditation. Howell appeared there the same day her father was having open heart surgery. She is well regarded in the brief 4 months she has been on the job but many were surprised that Smith did not take the lead in explaining the new bylaws. He introduced her to handle that.

Meanwhile the Museum Foundation, which a different organization, met in July and ousted 26 year member Bobby Thomas, a respected Nashville attorney, from the Foundation Board. It has been the conduit by which the $40 million in private gifts have been raised but the Museum Commission have not been told anything as to how much has been pledged and how much has been collected. Transparency has not reached the Foundation.

All in all it was a good day for Tennessee as an assault on free speech was thwarted by the legislative hearing and the General Assembly asserted its rightful role as a co-equal branch of government.

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Victor Ashe is a former Mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee. He served as United States Ambassador to Poland from 2004 to 2009. From 2010 to 2013 he was a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

Ambassador Ashe is a board member of the Douglas Henry State Museum Commission.

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