Tenn. lawmaker calls on college to punish Capitol protesters
NASHVILLE — State Sen. Randy McNally has urged the University of Memphis to take action against a student group that he said was involved in protests last week at the Capitol that resulted in seven arrests.
On March 17, McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said the protests two days earlier were worse than when anti-income tax protesters threw rocks through Capitol windows and banged on the doors of the chamber a decade ago.
Protesters opposing anti-union bills like one seeking to strip teachers' collective-bargaining rights chanted accusations of “union busting” by legislators. The protesters also refused to leave a committee hearing.
On March 15, seven protesters were charged with misdemeanors for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after the disruption, which lasted about half an hour.
“I've been down here a fairly long period of time,” McNally said on the Senate floor. “And I've never seen a situation like that.”
Democrats were quick to criticize McNally's statements.
“This is still America, people have the right to protest,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. “We've not taken that right away yet; however it feels sometimes we're heading down that road.”
McNally said several of the pro-labor protesters were affiliated with the Progressive Student Alliance group registered at the University of Memphis. He said the school should kick the group off campus and consider expelling those involved.
“I would hope the university takes action,” McNally said. “I know if it was a fraternity that did something like that, they'd be off campus in a heartbeat”
Six of the seven people arrested were from Memphis, but the Commercial Appeal newspaper reports that only two are currently enrolled at the University of Memphis while two others attend the private Memphis College of Art.
A spokesman for the University of Memphis did not immediately have any information about whether students can be expelled for misdemeanor offenses. A campus adviser for the group referred questions to the university.
Democratic state Sen. Thelma Harper of Nashville was critical of McNally's call for disciplining the protesters.
“Let's be careful how quickly we suggest that our young people be punished,” she said. “Because really, they were loud, but it was an orderly protest.”
Harper, who is black, said she didn't want to see students expelled from state schools because of their participation in protests, a practice which happened during the civil rights era.
“It may not have been proper protocol, but I hope we will look back and see the bridge that brought some of us over,” she said. “It was exercises just like those young people did the other day.”
Democratic state Rep. Jimmy Naifeh of Covington said the GOP's strong response to last week's protests stood in contrast to how the party handled the sometimes unruly anti-income tax protesters a decade ago.
“In 2002, all the protesters were called 'patriots,' according to Republicans,” Naifeh said.
At the height of the income tax protests, a rock was thrown through a window into the governor's office and lawmakers said they were threatened in person and by phone calls made to their homes. Ultimately, troopers were called in to ring the Captiol and escort lawmakers to and from the House and Senate chambers.
It was in response to protests in the summer of 2001 that all but one public entrance to the Capitol were closed, and a metal detector was installed at the one remaining.
But on March 17, McNally had a different recollection of the tax protests.
“The other events didn't really interrupt session,” he said. “Most of the people during that thing were well behaved.”