Victor Ashe Commentary: Free Speech Showdown Coming to Knoxville When Douglas Henry State Museum Commission Committee Meets in September

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The recent August 15 meeting of the Joint Committee on Rules and Regs chaired by State Rep Jerry Faison and State Senator Mike Bell is already having an impact on the previously little known Douglas Henry State Museum Commission which is next scheduled to meet on Monday morning at 10 October 9 at the Knoxville Zoo in East Tennessee. The meeting is open to the public.

There is also a bylaws committee meeting on September 14 in Knoxville which will attempt to revise the current bylaws which created so much controversy about free speech. They will submit new bylaws for the Commission to vote on in October.

Before you start commenting on this meeting being held at the Zoo after all the issues the Commission has faced, you should recognize the Zoo in Knoxville is well worth viewing. It is a real tourist attraction in Knoxville. Almost 500,000 people a year visit. When I served as Mayor of Knoxville we were and are very proud of what has been accomplished there. The actual meeting will be near the entrance and the gift shop.

While the Zoo is not art or history, it is a well maintained and operated facility which brings people to Tennessee. Museum Commission member Pete Claussen made all the arrangements at the request of Chairman Tom Smith of Nashville who grew up here in Knoxville. His office is handling all the details.

The first order of business will be the repeal of the bylaws which triggered overwhelming opposition from the Joint Legislative Commission. They include language requiring members to sign a code of conduct which included a pledge to resign from the Commission if asked and elsewhere a writer of a column such as this would be required to submit it to the Commission in advance of publication.

These bylaws further provide a three step penalty enforcement for those members who do not follow these requirements.

That is not being done with this column or any column I write. Nor will I sign such a ridiculous pledge. In fact, Senate Speaker Randy McNally urged me not to sign. McNally re-appointed me to the Commission.

Senator Bo Watson of Chattanooga who chairs the Senate Finance Committee has also said he will not sign such a pledge.

Such bylaws in my view are insulting to rational adults and showed little recognition as to how they would be received by the General Assembly which created and funds the State Museum. At the August 15 hearing at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville, all members who spoke from both parties and who represented a variety of political views criticized these bylaws. From Senator Mae Beavers to Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh there was consistent disagreement.

At one point Senator Mike Bell asked Chairman Smith of the Museum if he wanted a war with the legislature. He wisely said ‘No.’ It is unfortunate he has not realized earlier how negative the reaction would be and the public attention on this could have been avoided has the bylaws never been proposed in the first place.

Commission chair Smith told the legislators the Commission would take a fresh look at the bylaws and hopefully the Commission will remove the seriously objectionable features to avoid a showdown with the legislature which would not turn out well for the Commission.

Smith himself has adopted the proposal of State Rep John Ragan of Oak Ridge who asked if the Commission had a public forum where citizens could speak before the Commission. This will be a positive change if adopted.

For the life of me I cannot fathom how the bylaws committee came up with such far reaching proposals which no other Board or Commission in state government has or has sought. There are 14 members on this public board appointed by the Governor and the Speakers of the House and Senate. It is true that these 14 members do not vote in lockstep and differ. That is to be expected and indicates differing members are probing the issues as they should. It is true that some of the issues have been debated outside Commission meetings and in the broader public arena. That is normal and to be expected.

Robust discussion of serious issues improves the decision making process. I hope it continues and it will continue with me as long as I serve. I was the first chair of the Commission and along with Rep Steve McDaniel we are the longest serving members.

The transition of the Museum to its new home on the Bicentennial Mall in Nashville should be our priority. It is a massive undertaking. Staff will be divided between two buildings once the new Museum opens.

A major unanswered question today which was raised by Senator Mae Beavers at the recent hearing when she asked about the $40 million which the state administration said would be raised privately. Mark Cate, former chief of staff to Gov. Haslam, has been hired to raise the funds. She did not receive an answer.
On August 31, she will resign from the senate to accelerate her campaign for Governor.

No report has been made as of the writing of this article as to how much of the $40 million has been raised or who has given and in what amount. While transparency has been pledged, it has not been delivered. There is still time to make a public report.

If the effort falls short of its stated goal of $40 million will the legislature be asked to make up the shortfall with more tax dollars? Or will the new Museum be reduced in scope by whatever amount it is short? Less space, fewer exhibits or what? The Commission needs to know what it is facing. The people of Tennessee who are funding this need to know as well. We all work for them.

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