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When hand-carried signs are a 'safety hazard,' but guns aren't

When visiting state lawmakers in Tennessee, you can't bring a hand-held sign. You can, however, carry a firearm.
The Tennessee State Capitol stands apart from newer buildings in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.
The Tennessee State Capitol stands apart from newer buildings in Nashville, Tenn., Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009.

State lawmakers in Tennessee are settling into a newly renovated office building in Nashville, though as the Tennessean  reported the other day, the new policies for the building are not without controversy.

Tennesseans will be allowed to bring their guns to the new home of the legislature but must leave any hand-held signs behind, according to a recently implemented policy.The policy, which Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, approved Dec. 14, expressly prohibits "hand-carried signs and signs on hand sticks" because they "represent a serious safety hazard."

The newspaper quoted Ken Paulson, who serves as president of Middle Tennessee State University's First Amendment Center and dean of the school's College of Media and Entertainment, saying, "Any rational person would have to suspect that this is an attempt in part to limit dissent and to avoid embarrassment to lawmakers."

In other words, don't be surprised if there's a lawsuit challenging the policy on First Amendment grounds.

But it's the selectivity of the "hazards" that stands out as especially notable. According to the Tennessean's reporting, guns aren't allowed in the state Capitol itself, but they will be allowed in the Cordell Hull State Office Building, where state lawmakers have their offices. To see hand-carried signs as "a serious safety hazard," while simultaneously allowing firearms, seems difficult to understand.

It is, however, part of a lengthy pattern.

In 2012, for example, ahead of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, officials banned everything from water pistols to masks to metal pipes from the areas outside the venue. Concealed, loaded firearms, however, were permissible.

Last year, when the Republican National Convention was in Cleveland, there was a zone around the convention site in which a variety of items were banned, including aerosol cans, rope, and tennis balls. Under state law, however, officials couldn't prohibit guns.

Perhaps the most memorable example came in 2013, when officials in Texas, during a debate on sweeping restrictions to reproductive rights, briefly tried to stop people from carrying tampons into the Capitol building -- even though firearms were welcome.