Editorial: This time it's Montana's GOP-led statehouse canceling dissenting voices

Montana Democratic Rep. Zooey Zephyr hoists a microphone into the air on Monday, April 24, 2023, as her supporters interrupt proceedings in the state House by chanting "Let Her Speak!" in Helena, Mont. Republican leaders in the Legislature didn't let Zephyr, who is transgender, speak on the floor for the third consecutive day because she refuses to apologize for calling GOP lawmakers out for supporting a ban on gender-affirming care. (AP Photo/Amy Beth Hanson)
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Republican lawmakers in another statehouse sullied themselves this week by turning rules meant to encourage debate into weapons to snuff it out — and to erase a duly elected representative of people whose views differ from the majority’s.

This time it was GOP members of the Montana House silencing Democrat Zooey Zephyr, banning her from the floor for the rest of the session.

They follow in the tainted footsteps of their Republican counterparts in Tennessee, who this month expelled Democrats Justin Jones and Justin Pearson for breaking statehouse decorum amid a debate on gun control after the deadly mass shooting of three children and three adults at a Nashville school on March 27.

Local officials in Tennessee quickly reappointed Jones and Pearson to their positions. In Montana, Zephyr kept her seat and will be able to vote but won’t be able to speak on the House floor.

Zephyr’s supposed breaches over the course of several days were to tell her colleagues who voted for a law banning gender-affirming care that they had blood on their hands, to hold a microphone toward protesters in the gallery as they chanted “Let her speak,” and to decline to apologize.

Zephyr, who is transgender, said she spoke on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community.

“This legislature has systematically attacked that community,” she told her colleagues. “We have seen bills targeting our art forms, our books, our history and our healthcare.”

In an era such as this one, in which so many Americans express revulsion and anger toward those who hold opposing views, decorum rules can be useful and even essential tools of democracy — guidelines for airing differences and making decisions without descending into personal attacks or violence. Carefully crafted and responsibly applied, rules of conduct encourage debate. Misused, they become weapons to stifle it.

Montana’s rules were misused against Zephyr. Her silencing and exile were far out of proportion to her supposed offense. It was the first time in nearly half a century that lawmakers in Helena imposed such sanctions.

Similarly, Tennessee House decorum rules had never before been used to expel members until this month.

The Republican majority in Montana who voted to silence and exile their colleague include at least 21 members of the Montana Freedom Caucus, which refuses to refer to Zephyr as “she” or “her.”

“It’s unfortunate that Rep. Zephyr had neither the maturity nor the humility to take responsibility for his actions,” the caucus announced in a news release — expressing in the process its members’ own lack of maturity, humility, basic decency and respect.

Republicans have increasingly used statehouse majorities to nullify voter decisions in Democratic districts and deepen divisions among Americans. Last year, Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature impeached Larry Krasner, the twice-elected Philadelphia district attorney. That effort ultimately failed, as did the Tennessee expulsion, given the two lawmakers’ reappointments. Zephyr’s banishment will be short-lived because the session ends early next month.

But around the nation, similar efforts against elected officials representing the minority party are moving forward. The health of democracy, free speech and equal rights hangs in the balance.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.