Decorum and Sanctioning Representatives Jones, Pearson, and Zephyr | Facing History & Ourselves
Expelled State Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, delivers remarks outside the state Capitol, in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, April 10, 2023. Pearson was sworn in, a week after he and state Rep. Justin Jones were banished for a gun control protest on the floor of the House, in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting.
Current Event

Decorum and Sanctioning Representatives Jones, Pearson, and Zephyr

This mini-lesson helps students understand recent events in the Tennessee and Montana state legislatures and consider the implications of using rules of decorum to sanction state representatives.


  • Advisory
  • English & Language Arts
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Mini-Lesson

In April 2023, three state lawmakers in Tennessee and Montana were excluded from legislative sessions or expelled outright on the grounds that they violated rules of decorum. This mini-lesson includes an optional opening activity that helps students consider how to discuss politics in non-polarizing ways, helps students learn about the events leading up to the sanctioning of the Tennessee and Montana representatives, and raises questions around the use of rules around decorum to censure the legislators. Each activity can be used on its own or taught in any combination best suited to your students.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 reading
  • Student-facing slides

Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled from the Tennessee state legislature for  “knowingly and intentionally bring[ing] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives” after they participated in a protest on the floor of the legislature. In the last 100 years, only two other lawmakers have been expelled from the Tennessee legislature, one for allegations of sexual misconduct and one for accepting a bribe. 

While Jones and Pearson admitted to breaking rules around decorum, they argued that they were exercising their right to peacefully protest and were supporting their constituents. The demonstrators were calling for gun-control legislation in the wake of a school shooting in Nashville that killed 6 people, 3 of whom were children. 

Representative Gloria Johnson also participated in the protest on the floor of the legislature, but the vote to remove her failed. Some lawmakers who voted to oust Jones and Pearson but not Johnson said it was because she played a less disruptive role in the protest. Johnson herself stated the different outcome “might have to do with the color of our skin."

Combined, Jones and Pearson represent around 130,000 constituents in districts in Nashville and Memphis. Both of them were temporarily reinstated to their seats and will run again in special elections. 

In Montana, Representative Zooey Zephyr, who is herself a trans woman, spoke during a legislative session against a bill that would prevent minors from accessing gender-affirming medical care. Referencing research on the link between withholding gender-affirming care from children and increased risk of depression and suicide, she stated: “If you vote yes on this bill, I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.

Afterwards, a bloc of 21 conservative Republican lawmakers, called the Montana Freedom Caucus, wrote a letter accusing Zephyr of using “inappropriate and uncalled for language.” House leadership refused to recognize Zephyr to speak and disabled her microphone after receiving this letter. In response, a group of protestors chanted “let her speak” from the gallery, interrupting a legislative session. 

In a 68-32 vote, Montana lawmakers decided to punish Zephyr on the grounds that her speech violated the rules of decorum and that she did not do enough to stop the protest on her behalf. Zephyr has been barred from the House floor for the remainder of the legislative session. While she can vote remotely, she is not allowed to speak.

Zephyr represents around 11,000 constituents in Missoula. When given the chance to respond to the accusations against her, she said:  "When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed.”

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Share the following passage with your students, which can also be found in the Slides for this mini-lesson:

Research shows that many voters treat politics like sports. Instead of deciding which candidates or policies to support based on issues, they are motivated by a desire to beat the other “team” or political party. This attitude can feed into political polarization and make it more difficult to talk about politics in constructive ways. 1 Media coverage of politics can encourage this way of thinking.

Share Five Thirty Eight’s Pop Quiz: Can You Tell Political Pundits From Sports Commentators?. Ask your students to vote on whether they think each quote is a reference to sports or politics and then reveal the answer.

Then, ask your students to share their responses to the two questions below. Write down students' ideas and use them to help you determine norms to guide your conversations on political issues.

  • What do you think it would look like if we treated politics like sports in our class discussions?
  • What do you think it looks like if we treat politics differently than sports in our class discussions? What is gained or lost by treating politics differently than sports?
  • What norms should guide our conversations about political issues?

Explain to your students that they will be learning about state representatives in Tennessee and Montana who were excluded or expelled from their legislatures. Representatives are elected by regional districts to their state house of representatives. Play the Wall Street Journal video What Led To Tennessee’s Expulsion of Two Democrats for ‘Disorderly Behavior’ (2:33) and the CBS video, Montana bans transgender lawmaker from House floor (2:12) for your students.

Divide your class into groups of 3-4 students, and assign half of the groups to focus on the events in Tennessee and half to focus on the events in Montana. Distribute the reading Sanctions Against Representatives Pearson, Jones, and Zephyr.

Ask your students to read the section on their assigned state. They should use the information from the text and videos to help them answer the questions related to their state as a group.


  • What was one goal of Representatives Jones, Pearson, and Johnson? What strategies did they use to achieve this goal?
  • What was one goal of the protestors? What strategies did they use to achieve this goal?
  • What was one goal of the lawmakers who voted to expel Jones and Pearson? What strategies did they use to achieve this goal?


  • What was one goal of Representatives Zephyr? What strategies did she use to achieve this goal?
  • What was one goal of the protestors? What strategies did they use to achieve this goal?
  • What was one goal of the lawmakers who voted to exclude Zephyr? What strategies did they use to achieve this goal?

Once students have finished discussing their questions in their groups, place them in new groups with students who discussed the other state. Ask them to share their answers with their new group members.

Representatives Jones and Pearson in Tennessee and Representative Zephyr in Montana were expelled or excluded from their state legislatures on the grounds that they violated rules of decorum governing the speech and actions of legislators. Share the following definition of the term decorum from the Cambridge Dictionary with your students:

behavior that is controlled, calm, and polite 1

Ask your students:

  • Do you think this definition of decorum is a good standard for behavior in public settings, for example in schools? What, if anything, would you add or take away from this standard?
  • What are the potential benefits of having norms around speech and behavior in public settings?
  • What are some examples of speech you think should be forbidden in the legislature, and why?

Then, share the following three quotes with your students:

"Pushing back against the status quo will be seen as inherently uncivil by the people who want to maintain it. And there are always higher standards expected of those people pushing back." – Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR 2

"When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed.” – Representative Zephyr

“I say that what we did was act in our responsibility as legislators to serve and give voice to the grievances of people who have been silenced.” – Representatives Jones

Ask your students:

  • How could rules around speech be used to silence people? Can you think of examples from your own life when you have seen this happen?
  • Who do you think should get to decide what the rules around speech and behavior in the legislature are? 
  • What are the potential consequences of removing a legislator or preventing them from speaking about a bill?

Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the resources from external sources that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this mini-lesson.

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