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Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, is flanked by former state Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, left, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, outside the House chamber on April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, is flanked by former state Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, left, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, outside the House chamber on April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, is flanked by former state Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, left, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, outside the House chamber on April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson April 13, 2023
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman April 13, 2023

Why it’s wrong to call the Tennessee state representatives insurrectionists

If Your Time is short

  • Three Tennessee Democratic state representatives protested against gun violence on the state House floor March 30.
  • The protest did not result in any violence or vandalism, although it stopped the House’s usual legislative business. 
  • In comparison, on Jan. 6, 2021, rioters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol as they sought to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Cameron Sexton, the Republican speaker of the Tennessee House, compared the actions of three Democratic representatives who protested on the House floor with the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. 

"There were three Democratic lawmakers, one from Knoxville, who basically tried to take over the House floor and cause an insurrection on the House floor today," Sexton said in an interview on "The Hal Show Podcast" on March 30, the day of the protest.

Sexton said state representatives Justin Jones of Nashville and Gloria Johnson of Knoxville "have been very vocal about Jan. 6 in Washington D.C., about what that was, and what they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent — maybe worse, depending on how you look at it — of doing an insurrection in the Capitol."

Days later, Sexton tweeted that his comments were not directed toward the peaceful protesters but "toward the actions of three Democrat lawmakers who rushed the well and those who led a protest on the House floor with a bullhorn." 

The characterization of either the protesters or the trio of Democratic lawmakers as insurrectionists was elevated by conservative pundits and echoed on social media.

The trio of Democratic lawmakers— Jones, Johnson and Justin J. Pearson of Memphis — were calling for action against gun violence days after a deadly mass shooting at a Nashville school. 

We found that the peaceful actions by the Tennessee lawmakers did not mirror the criminal actions of the more than 1,000 people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

"It is nonsense to refer to the actions of the ‘Tennessee Three’ as an ‘insurrection,’" said John J. Pitney, Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "They were not trying to overthrow the government."

The trio of lawmakers led chants, but there was no violence or vandalism

A young girl on March 28, 2023, places an item at a growing memorial for the victims of the shooting at the entry to The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. (AP)

On March 30, hundreds of protesters flooded the Tennessee Capitol hallways and the public viewing galleries, chanting phrases like "Shame on you," "Save our children," and "Children are dead, and you don’t care."

A video clip showed Jones holding a megaphone and a "protect kids not guns" sign, flanked by Pearson and Johnson. The three lawmakers took over the House foor’s lectern and led chants, such as "Power to the people," echoed by the protesters gathered in the galleries.

Johnson told PolitiFact in an interview that 15 seconds after lawmakers walked up to the lectern, Sexton cut off the microphone and called for a recess. The trio of lawmakers continued leading chants.

We watched a video showing about seven minutes of the lawmakers and saw no violence or vandalism. 

Meanwhile, other legislators and staff milled about the House floor chatting with one another. Some of these people looked at the trio; others turned their backs to them. Their body language did not suggest that they feared for their safety.

Wes Moster, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees Capitol security, told PolitiFact that there was no violence or property destruction during the protest, nor did law enforcement officers make any arrests. 

The state House voted April 6 to expel Jones and Pearson; a resolution to expel Johnson failed by one vote. The Nashville Metropolitan Council reappointed Jones to his seat April 10, and he was sworn in that day. The Shelby County Commission voted April 12 to reinstate Pearson.

The assault on the Capitol Jan. 6 involved multiple charges of violence and vandalism

In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (AP)

The scene on the Tennessee House floor stopped legislative business, but it did not resemble the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that sent some lawmakers running for their lives. 

The U.S. Justice Department has said that more than 1,020 people have been arrested for their actions on Jan. 6.

Featured Fact-check

Among the charges:

  • Obstruction of law enforcement 

  • Conspiracy to injure an officer

  • Using a deadly weapon

  • Assault

  • Disorderly conduct

  • Unlawful possession of firearms. 

Some of the rioters smashed windows and broke doors, causing about $2.8 million in losses. 

Some of the rioters grabbed a police officer, dragged him and struck him in the head and body with objects. Another rioter used a metal flagpole to attack a police officer. One officer screamed in pain as rioters crushed him. More than 140 police officers were injured.

We contacted Sexton’s office seeking his evidence and did not hear back. But in the podcast interview he said, "Even the media who have been covering it calls it an insurrection. They were trying to incite people … they incited people in (the) balcony to be disorderly and disruptive to shut us down, and try to make us adjourn."

Some conservative outlets, including The Federalist, called that protest an insurrection. But mainstream news outlets, including The Tennessean, did not describe the scene that way.

Michael J. Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor, said Sexton’s comments comparing the Tennessee lawmakers with Jan. 6 insurrectionists was "preposterous."

"One was a peaceful protest," Klarman said. "The other was a violent insurrection, trying to subvert the results of an election and a peaceful transfer of power."

Carlton F.W. Larson, a law professor at the University of California-Davis, told PolitiFact that the term "insurrection" is "sometimes used colloquially to refer to anti-government actions, without the speaker necessarily meaning to suggest that a particular criminal statute had been broken." One example could be a massive student walk-out at a university to protest a policy, he said.

But the Tennessee lawmakers "were authorized to be on the floor of the Tennessee house, whereas the January 6 participants were all engaged in unlawful trespassing," Larson said.

Our ruling

Sexton said that actions of the Tennessee state legislators who protested against gun violence were "at least equivalent" to the actions of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

A trio of Democratic lawmakers stood at the lectern on the Tennessee House floor calling for legislative action in response to gun violence. The protest stopped the House chamber’s official business, but the protesters’ actions were not an attempt to overthrow the state government.

There was no violence or destruction of property, and no one was arrested. 

In comparison, Jan. 6 rioters smashed windows and broke doors causing millions of dollars in losses, injured 140 police officers, and vandalized property.

Sexton’s comparison of the Tennessee lawmakers’ actions to the actions of the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 is wrong. We rate his claim False.

RELATED: Protesters against gun violence didn’t make their way onto the Tennessee House floor

RELATED: All of our fact-checks of statements about Jan. 6

Staff writer Madison Czopek contributed to this fact-check.

Our Sources

Hal Show podcast, Interview with Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, March 30, 2023

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Twitter thread, April 3, 2023

The Tennessean, Tennessee Capitol protest explainer: Here's what did and did not happen, April 4, 2023

Tennessee House floor session, Replay of the March 30 protest (starts at 4:45), April 6, 2023

Dom Lucre, Tweet, March 30, 2023

Greg Price, Tweet, March 30, 2023

Ryan Fournier, Tweet, March 30, 2023

Charlie Kirk, Tweet, March 30, 2023

Internet Archive, Tucker Carlson, March 31, 2023

Former President Barack Obama, Tweets, April 6, 2023

Rep. Justin Jones, Tweet, April 1, 2023

Texas General Assembly website, state Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, accessed April 12, 2023

Twitter, state Rep. Justin Pearson, accessed April 12, 2023

State Rep. Justin Pearson, Instagram, April 3, 2023

U.S. Department of Justice, 27 Months Since the Jan. 6 Attack on the Capitol, April 6, 2023

The Federalist, Tennessee Republicans Boot Democrats Who Incited Insurrection From Committees, Threaten Expulsion, April 4, 2023

Telephone interview, Tennessee State Rep. Gloria Johnson, April 11, 2023

Email interview with Carlton F.W. Larson, law professor at the University of California-Davis, April 12, 2023

Email interview with John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, April 11, 2023

Email interview with Michael J. Klarman, Harvard Law School professor, April 11, 2023

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Why it’s wrong to call the Tennessee state representatives insurrectionists

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