Talk of assault swirls in Tennessee House after lawmakers scuffle

House cameras didn't catch an assault in the aisle, but there was a moment between two Tennessee lawmakers that was very heated.
TN Rep. Justin Jones and House Speaker Cameron Sexton in tiff on House floor.
Posted at 9:24 PM, Aug 29, 2023

It wasn't clear who threw the first jab, or caused an assault in the Tennessee legislature, if there were grounds to accuse either party of one. 

House Speaker Cameron Sexton said sanctions weren't out of the realm of possibility for House members, as some claimed they were assaulted on the House floor, blocked from leaving their seats, and "popped" in the shoulder, despite a security detail. 

It all happened within a 30-minute period, just before a special session ended its tumultuous tenure in this chapter of Tennessee politics. 

The first outburst came from Tennessee's Rep. Justin Lafferty, who claimed he was assaulted on the House floor. 

The House cameras didn't seem to catch an assault in the aisle. It is not the first time Lafferty has had trouble on the House floor. State Rep. Justin Jones, a Democrat from Nashville, accused him of simple assault by grabbing his phone out of his hand in April. 

Jones went to the Metro Nashville Police Department with the claim. It's not clear what happened following that accusation. 

Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat from Knoxville, posted a message on X, then-called Twitter, that Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culloeka, and Rep. Monty Fritts, a Republican legislator from Kingston, blocked her from leaving her desk on the House floor. She called them bullies and thugs in the tweet. 

"I asked multiple times, loudly, and they refused to move so I could get out of the chambers," she wrote. 

Johnson spoke to Scripps News Nashville just after the House doors shut. She said she had to ask eight or nine times before the men would move out of her way. 

"They heard me. I think of it, that they are cowards, and they are bullies," Johnson said. "Gov. Lee brought us here under the guise of an extreme order of protection law. It wasn't the best law with a lot of teeth in it, but it was a start." 

She said, "Instead, they have betrayed 80% of Tennesseans, who wanted us to do something real to end gun violence. None of that happened. Instead, what we saw was bullying members. They revealed themselves as being unable to lead. They are scared to death — cowardly, bullying."

As Johnson was attempting to leave the state's House chambers, so was House Speaker Cameron Sexton — a Republican from Crossville — who claimed that Rep. Justin Pearson, a Democrat from Memphis, "popped" him on his right side. Sexton later changed his language, telling reporters that he was "bumped."

Reps. Jones and Pearson were holding up neon-colored pieces of paper with writing on them, and trying to follow Sexton and his security detail very closely amid a roaring House full of shouting people. 

In a video, it appears that Sexton was bumped into by his security detail, which then appeared to have caused Sexton to bump into Pearson. 

Then Sexton says Pearson bumped his shoulder and pushed him to the left. 

The House cameras do not show what happened exactly. Scripps News Nashville captured the same image from the House gallery. 

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People in the House gallery hold signs in support of gun law reform during a special session

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House Republicans, in a press conference held after, said this was nothing more than tomfoolery on the House floor Tuesday. 

"It started with Lafferty getting bumped," Sexton said. "It is what it is," he said. "We need to figure out how to calm down, but we will see," he said, when talking about sanctions. "It's interesting that it happened once again," he said. 

House Caucus Leader Jeremy Faison — who had to apologize in recent years for publicly attempting to pants (when someone tries to pull another person's pants down without their consent) a sports referee at a children's game — said it was a lack of maturity to get in someone's personal space. 

"That's a prescription for disaster," Faison, R-Cosby, said. "That's beneath the level of a representative."

Pearson disputes all of that. 

"I was pushed by Cameron Sexton and by members of his team," Pearson said outside of the House chambers. 

"Then he started to scream and yell as if we had done something. Rep. Jones was pushed by Rep. Cepicky as well, because we were holding signs about protecting kids and not guns. This is where we are: The authoritarian actions of banning signs is also living with the people with power in this state. They are doing policy violence and physical violence," Pearson said. 

Chris Davis and Devin Crawford contributed to this report which was originally published by Emily West at Scripps News Nashville