A month ago the Douglas Henry Museum Commission met July 10 and adopted new by laws which purport to give the Commission the right to force a Commissioner to resign and which require a Commissioner to provide an advance copy of any column or article he/she might write to the Commission. No other Board or Commission in state government that I am aware of has sought such power to silence a dissenting member.
If the late Senator Henry, who I knew for 49 years, was alive today I am sure he would join me in saying that robust debate and discussion is critical to all public bodies. Efforts to impose prior restraint on speech are unconstitutional and contrary to sound public policy in a democracy. I was one of the original Commission members and the first chairman of the Commission after its creation.
The Joint Legislative committee on rules and regulations is holding a hearing today, August 15, to review these rules. The Commission majority takes the position that the joint committee does not have jurisdiction. I strongly disagree. An effort to force a member to resign under certain conditions is not a policy, it is a rule. I applaud Senator Mike Bell and Rep Jeremy Faison who co chair the committee for insisting on this hearing which places a spotlight on the issue. I appreciate the interest of Senator Mae Beavers and Rep Craig Fitzhugh, who both serve on the joint committee, for their efforts to maintain an ongoing dialogue within the Commission itself.
The General Assembly operates on vigorous debate and discussion both inside and outside the chamber. That is how our laws are made and we are better for it. The Museum Commission should not be different.
We are now only 16 months away from moving into a new Museum Building which will cost $160 million of which $40 million was pledged to be raised privately. We have a talented and able new executive director, Ashley Howell. To my knowledge she had no role in drafting these draconian bylaws nor did she recommend them.
It is most unfortunate that at a time the Museum should be planning for the future transition, working to review current staffing and their low pay, determining how the new Museum will be funded by taxpayers and how much by private assistance, we are in the middle of an embarrassing public debate over censorship of Commission members and whether the Commission will be accountable to the General Assembly which created it and funds it.
Even today Commission members as well as the public have not been told how much the $40 million to be raised by private efforts has in fact been raised and who the donors are. Will there be a shortfall which will result in asking the legislature to make it up with tax funds or will current exhibits be cut back? This is an area of inquiry to which answers over the past year have not been available.
The 14 Commission members are named by the Governor and the two Speakers. These three leaders themselves differ with each other on occasion. It is not surprising that their respective appointees might also differ from time to time. Public differences should be allowed and respected. I hope the legislative hearing will help assure that process.
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Victor Ashe is the former Mayor of Knoxville. 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.