TN State Museum board votes to impose ‘gag order’ (Victor Ashe’s description) on its members

The governing board of the Tennessee State Museum has adopted a “astonishingly broad new code of conduct” that restricts board members’ public commentary on museum affairs, reports the Nashville Post.

The new code, which was adopted without much discussion Monday morning, was emailed to members at 1 a.m. Sunday, less than 36 hours before the vote. Although state law dictates the DHSMC (Douglas Henry State Museum Commission) should “promulgate rules and regulations” in accordance with the Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (as it is spelled out in state law), DHSMC chair Tom Smith said “operating policies” are not subject to the UAPA and thus do not need to go through the state’s lengthy notice process in advance of hearings for rule changes.

Although Smith stated repeatedly the changes to the code of conduct were not singling out any one individual commissioner, the new regulations seem specifically designed to target one particular DHSMC member — Victor Ashe, who was just reappointed to the commission for another four years and has been a regular critic of some of the commission’s recent actions.

…In the past year alone, Ashe’s critiques and comments to the press have helped uncover a lengthy string of questionable practices… The museum is currently under a state audit — the third since 2011 — as the result of of some of these events.

 The Senate Finance Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee may also investigate the museum, depending on the audit results. Nonetheless, Smith spearheaded the adoption of the expansive new code of conduct, along with other revisions to the operating policies, through the commission’s By-Laws Operating Policies Committee — of which he is technically only an ex-officio member — and then the full commission on Monday, with nine of 13 members present.

In an email Monday afternoon to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixson), a DHSMC member who was not at the meeting, Smith said, “I can assure you that the By-Laws Committee has been working on these revised Operating Policies for months and their work has been diligent and well-thought out. The changes to the Codes of Conduct/Ethics were not intended to single out anyone, in fact, despite, what you may have been told.”

.. Ashe — who was absent from the meeting, traveling in Romania — said Smith is being disingenuous.

“This is a clear contradiction of First Amendment rights and a gag order,” said Ashe, “To require a commission member, minus the chair and vice chair, to share any statement given to media or a blog on the Commission in advance is truly a restraint on free speech.”

McNally, who just reappointed Ashe to the commission along with current Vice Chair Nancy Baker De Friece, also expressed reservations about the policy changes and plans to hold a meeting with Smith.

…But soon-to-be-announced House Speaker Beth Harwell, who is a DHSMC member and voted in support of the policy changes, did not have the same issues.

“They are free to talk to anyone they want to talk to and say anything they want to say. That’s still the case,” said Harwell. When it was pointed out that members cannot, in fact, say anything disparaging, Harwell replied, “Sure they are.” Even after the clause in question was read to her, Harwell still repeated this would not prevent a member from saying negative things in public in the event of troubling audit or similar issues.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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