On February 7, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) took to the Senate floor during the debate of Trump’s nominee, then Alabama State Senator Jeff Sessions (R), for US Attorney General. Sen. Warren took to the floor to read a letter written by Coretta Scott King in 1986 that was extremely critical of Jeff Sessions becoming a federal judge for Alabama.
Partially into the reading, Sen. Warren was first interrupted and warned by presiding officer Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT). Warren rebutted that she was simply repeating King’s words and continued only to be cut off again by House Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sen. McConnell silenced Warren due to her violating Section 2 of Rule XIX of the Standing Rules of the United States Senate that reads:
“No Senator in debate shall, 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 other words, Warren was accused of “casting doubt upon” or “charging with fault” Sen. Jeff Sessions during debate of his nomination (dictionary.com). From there, presiding officer Senator Daines instructed to take her seat and it was decided that she wouldn’t be allowed to speak on the Senate floor until after voting. This, however, did not stop her ‘nevertheless, she persisted’ (#shepersisted is now running on Twitter). Sen. Warren exited the room and proceeded to read the letter on Facebook Live stating that she wants to read the letter.
Granted it can be argued that since the Senate runs under its own governance, there’s no reason to claim that her First Amendment Right was denied, however, the issue is that only Warren was silenced. Male colleagues such as Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) were able to read from the letter uninterrupted. While Sen. Udall read the letter for it to be recorded into congressional records the next morning on Wednesday, Sen. Merkley read from the later the same night Warren was shut down. The difference, per his remarks, was that he only read “portions of the letter and with context to be in line with Senate rules.”
According to the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Therefore, it prohibits one’s freedom of expression and right to speak from being restricted by Congress. Does this not apply to Sen. Warren? As mentioned before, it is argued that since the Senate runs under its own rules, this would not apply to Sen. Warren because Senators ‘consent’ to the limitation of their First Amendment rights.
I do not agree with this argument because Sen. Warren was reading a letter that is available to the public. She should have been able to share the words of Coretta Scott King because they belonged to a prominent figure in Civil Rights. Therefore, Section 2 of Rule XIX of the Standing Rules of the United States Senate should not have been applicable to her since those weren’t her criticisms or words of accusation but that of someone else’s.