The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana has filed a lawsuit on behalf of State Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D-Missoula), challenging the Montana House’s vote to censure and bar her from the lower chamber.
House Republicans barred Zephyr, the state’s first transgender lawmaker, from the chamber after she gave a sharp-tongued speech on the House floor opposing a bill to prevent transgender youth from accessing gender-affirming care.
During the speech, Zephyr said that Montana lawmakers would have “blood on their hands” due to the number of transgender youth who might attempt suicide if the bill were to become law. (The bill was signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on April 28.)
As punishment, House Speaker Matt Regier (R-Columbia Falls) refused to allow Zephyr to speak on bills brought to the House floor until she apologized for her rhetoric — which she refused to do.
Activists and constituents of Zephyr’s protested her silencing at the Montana State Capitol last week. Protesters in the House gallery interrupted proceedings with shouts of “Let her speak!” Regier ordered the gallery cleared, resulting in seven arrests, while Zephyr held up a microphone to amplify the protesters’ chants.
Republicans characterized the protest as a “riot” and an “insurrection,” with some even claiming that Zephyr’s rhetoric — and the resulting fallout — had placed GOP lawmakers and House staff at risk of physical violence.
Last Wednesday, Republicans, on a party-line vote, censured Zephyr for allegedly disrupting the session and violating the chamber’s rules of decorum by amplifying the protesters’ cries. Zephyr has been blocked from appearing on the House floor for the remainder of the session, which ends on May 10, but retains the ability to vote remotely.
Zephyr has sat in the hallway outside the chamber, listening in on House proceedings, arguing that she wants to be as “close” as possible to the action to ensure her constituents are aware of what’s going on.
According to Montana Public Radio, Regier has taken issue with this setup, telling Zephyr she should sit in the Democratic offices around the corner. But the measure passed last week only barred her from the chamber and the gallery, not from the hallways inside the building.
Zephyr commented on the ongoing controversy on Twitter. “Though they initially tried to have me removed from the public seating area, I am here working on behalf of my constituents as best I can given the undemocratic circumstances. I’m talking to legislators, listening to debate, voting on bills, and fighting for democracy.”
On Friday, hundreds of people in Zephyr’s hometown of Missoula rallied in support of her, marching for almost a mile until arriving at Caras Park for a rally. Demonstrators argued that Republicans have effectively denied them representation and silenced their voices by refusing to acknowledge their elected representative.
One of the protest organizers, Halle Smith, told Missoula-based CBS affiliate KPAX that the frustration with attacks against the state’s transgender community have been building for some time, even before Zephyr’s censure. Smith said the purpose of the demonstration was to “remind the state that the power is in our hands. And even though they silenced Zooey’s microphone and the voices of her constituents, they really can’t silence us.”
On Monday, May 1, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit on behalf of Zephyr and four of her constituents, arguing that the House’s actions are an unconstitutional violation of the lawmaker’s First Amendment rights and deny her constituents full and equal representation in state government.
The lawsuit lists the state of Montana, Regier, and Bradley Murfitt, the sergeant-at-arms of the Montana House, as defendants. It asks that Zephyr be allowed back into the House chamber and be allowed to comment on legislative business before the body.
“By depriving Representative Zephyr of her right to freely engage with the legislative process, Defendants have also deprived her 11,000 constituents of the right to full representation in their government,” the lawsuit states. “Defendants’ lawless silencing and Censure of Representative Zooey Zephyr extinguishes a vital part of the job her constituents elected her to do.”
“House leadership explicitly and directly targeted me and my district because I dared to give voice to the values and needs of transgender people like myself,” Zephyr said in a statement released by the ACLU of Montana. “By doing so, they’ve denied me my own rights under the Constitution and, more importantly, the rights of my constituents to just representation in their own government.”
A spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen called the complaint against the House of Representatives “political activism masquerading as a lawsuit,” asserting that the members of the House have the right to discipline their fellow members as they see fit for breaches of protocol.
“The ACLU is trying to use the courts to interfere with the legislature as it carries out its constitutional duties on behalf of Montanans,” Emily Flower, Knudsen’s press secretary, told NBC News in an email. “Any relief granted by the court would be a gross violation of the separation of powers.”
But the ACLU has argued that if Zephyr’s censure stands, it threatens the very concepts of representative democracy and free speech, allowing any political party to silence its opponents at will and punish dissenters out of spite.
“I feel alienated and disenfranchised to have my representative expelled from debate,” Dean Chou, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “I believe Representative Zephyr has done an effective job advocating for my interests and my rights on all issues, and I want Representative Zephyr to continue to do so.”
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