The California Senate was thrown into chaos and anger on Thursday when a Republican member was forcibly removed from the floor for allegedly speaking out of turn during a session.
Republican colleagues say Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, was silenced by the Democratic majority when the Senate sergeant-at-arms escorted her from the chamber as Nguyen tried to criticize the late Democratic lawmaker Tom Hayden for his stance against the Vietnam War.
“I’m enraged at the violation to free speech, our Constitution and the precedent this sets,” said Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller, who asked the Senate Rules Committee to look into what happened and make sure there is no “retribution” against Nguyen for the incident.
Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who represents a large Vietnamese community in Orange County, said she was shaken up and “quite upset” at being removed. Two days after the Senate memorialized Hayden, who traveled to North Vietnam with then-wife Jane Fonda in 1974, Nguyen said she wanted to offer “another historical perspective.”
“He sided with the communist government that enslaved and killed millions of Vietnamese, including my family,” Nguyen said. Without U.S. support for South Vietnam, “I wouldn’t be here today. I would be dead.”
At an unrelated press conference later, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said he was “greatly unsettled (by) what took place on the floor.”
De León, a Los Angeles Democrat, agreed to the Rules Committee review and said he would talk to Nguyen and Fuller. But he added that the situation “could have easily been dealt with” if they had followed parliamentary procedure.
Nguyen attempted to make her comments during the adjourn-in-memory portion of the Senate floor session, when members typically offer tributes to constituents who have recently died. After first delivering her comments in Vietnamese, Nguyen was quickly cut off as she tried to repeat them in English.
“Members, today I recognize in memory the millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who died in seeking for freedom and democracy,” she said. “On Tuesday, you had an opportunity to honor Sen. Tom Hayden. With all due respect, I would like to offer this historical perspective ...”
Presiding Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, interrupted Nguyen and gave the floor to Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who said Nguyen was out of order because she did not raise her objections during the Hayden tribute ceremony two days before. Nguyen continued to speak for several minutes, even as Lara repeatedly asked her to take a seat and then eventually ordered the sergeants to remove her.
“Sergeants, please remove Sen. Nguyen from the chamber,” Lara said. “Have her removed immediately. Sergeants, please remove Sen. Nguyen, she is out of order.”
I am deeply disturbed.
Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield
The decision infuriated Republicans, including Fuller, who complained that Nguyen had been disrespected.
“Just last year we let one of our guests speak on the floor, a movie star that we had no protocol for doing so, and yet we’re shutting a member down,” she said. “I am deeply disturbed.”
One Democrat, Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia, defended Nguyen’s right to “say what she needed to say and express her feelings and thoughts about what she feels strongly about, especially as it relates to her district and community.” He said someone should have given her direction on the appropriate time to speak, “but to forcibly remove her, I think that’s too extreme.”
The end of the session shortly after did not quell the furor. Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, loudly complained that de León had cut the discussion short. Senate staff and colleagues moved in to calm him down.
Republican senators later took to social media to denounce the incident, comparing it to a controversy in Congress earlier this month when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was prevented from reading a letter written by Coretta Scott King during a debate over the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“This sad episode is a textbook case of men trying to silence a woman whose views they did not like,” Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said in a statement. She added the “#ShePersisted” hashtag that emerged after the Warren event.
Nguyen said she chose not to speak at the Hayden memorial on Tuesday out of respect to his family in attendance. She said she alerted de León’s office of her intention to make a “point of personal privilege” on Thursday and was informed by email Wednesday night that she could not do so.
The email, from de León chief of staff Dan Reeves, suggested that Nguyen post a statement on Facebook or her website instead. Nguyen said she was told that her comments would be “highly inappropriate” and that she should respect the right of others to have a different perspective on Hayden.
Feeling that she had no other option to make herself heard, Nguyen said she “put up my mike.”
I hope it’s a learning experience.
Dan Reeves, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León
Reeves said his email was merely referring to Nguyen’s request to make a point of personal privilege, which would not be allowed because Hayden had never impugned her. He said he informed Nguyen on Thursday morning that she could instead speak on condition of the file at the end of session, when members are free to raise any subject.
“She proceeded nonetheless,” Reeves said shortly after the incident, necessitating her removal. “She got exactly what she wanted, which wasn’t to speak. She wanted to create a scene for her district.”
He later walked that sentiment back, conceding that “perhaps there was genuine confusion” and the response could have been handled better by all. He said the Rules Committee would help clarify the “appropriate response when a member speaks out of turn multiple times.”
“I hope it’s a learning experience,” Reeves said.
Nguyen, he added, will be free to make her comments about Hayden at the next Senate floor session on Monday.