- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - The Tennessee State Museum Commission will reconsider policies that state lawmakers on Tuesday criticized as hampering transparency in the oversight of the new $160 million facility, which is expected to open next year.

Under the code of conduct to be reevaluated following a Joint Government Operations Committee on Tuesday, commissioners were required to submit advance copies of commentary they planned to make to the media. They were also forbidden from publicly disparaging or maligning the Nashville museum or its staff.

Commissioner Victor Ashe, a frequent critic of museum operations, said the policy represents an unconstitutional effort to impose prior restraint on speech.

“The requirement that you have to give an advance copy - even if you don’t have to have approval - of anything you’re going to say, has a chilling effect,” said Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland.

The policy detailed disciplinary steps for violations. Those punishments range from admonishment, reprimand, censure and ultimately to a request for resignation. The policy also included a provision that the required signature on the policy signified an agreement to resign if requested by the commission.

Thomas Smith, the chairman of the museum board, told the Joint Government Operations Committee that the rules restricting members’ interactions with the public were only meant to keep them from appearing to be speaking on behalf of the commission. He added that disciplinary measures weren’t aimed at providing for the ouster of any of the appointees made by the governor or the House and Senate speakers.

Ashe, who was appointed by Senate Speaker Randy McNally, said he had been advised by the Oak Ridge Republican not to sign the policy.

House Government Operations Chairman Jeremy Faison said the policy is “severely limiting the public trust.”

“That would sound like to me that I’m not allowed to speak against the speaker of the House or the governor, unless I go get permission from the speaker of the House or the governor to speak against them,” the Cosby Republican said.

Smith said the intent was to encourage relevant discussion of museum matters to be held at scheduled public meetings. He didn’t gain any vocal support among the committee members.

“It’s hard for us - at least for me - not to see this as a naked attempt to silence one member,” said Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville.

After the hearing, Smith said he will have the commission reevaluate the policies “to see if this is something we need to move forward with or if we need to do it differently.”

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