Free Speech Is Taking a Beating in the Senate

Sen. Warren Barred From Sessions Debate

Posted by Dale Eisman on February 8, 2017


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At one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the President and his staff are intent on silencing reporters; at the other, the President’s most important ally in the Senate focused Tuesday night on silencing a fellow senator.

So when folks tell you that free speech is in danger in Washington, listen up; they’re onto something.

Newspapers, broadcasts, online news sites, and social media are bubbling over today with stories about how on Tuesday night a plurality of her fellow senators excluded Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, from a major floor debate. Warren’s crime? She read into the Congressional Record a 31-year-old letter and the transcript of a 31-year-old speech that already were in the record.

Warren ostensibly was rebuked for violating Senate Rule 19, which bans senators from floor statements that “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.” In fact, she was silenced because her Republican colleagues don’t much like her.

As part of an all-night debate on the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, to serve as attorney general, Warren read aloud portions of a two-paragraph letter critical of Sessions and written to senators in 1986 by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As Sessions, then a federal prosecutor, sought a federal judgeship, Mrs. King alleged that he had “used the awesome power of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”

Then-Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-MA, made similarly disparaging remarks about Sessions during the 1986 debate. After Warren repeated Kennedy’s comments and quoted Mrs. King’s letter on Tuesday night, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rose to invoke Rule 19 and ask that she be excluded from further debate on the Sessions nomination. On a 49-43 party line vote, McConnell prevailed.

Warren, who is arguably the current Senate’s most-skilled orator, decamped to Facebook Live, where she read the King letter again and continued her critique of the Sessions nomination. As of mid-morning today, her speech had 6.3 million views on Facebook and hundreds of thousands more on news organization websites. You can watch her Senate floor remarks and McConnell's maneuver to silence her here:


After Warren was booted, a parade of her Democratic colleagues including Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tom Udall of New Mexico, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont came to the floor to read Mrs. King’s letter. Several others tried – unsuccessfully – to have a copy of the letter placed in the record or to have the ban on Warren lifted.

Republicans made no move against any of them.

Sessions' nomination is scheduled for a final vote this evening; his confirmation is expected.

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections, More Democracy Reforms

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