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John Lewis warns House GOP's sit-in punishment will have 'chilling effect'

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. John Lewis invoked his experience getting badly beaten on Bloody Sunday in 1965 as he spoke against a proposed change to the House rules that was seen as the GOP's punishment for the gun control sit-in the Atlanta Democrat led on the floor last summer.

But it wasn't enough to stop lawmakers from voting along party lines Tuesday to approve the rules package, which among other changes would fine lawmakers up to $2,500 for using their cell phones to shoot photos or video on the House floor.

In an impassioned speech from the well of the House Tuesday afternoon, the civil rights icon and longtime congressman said he was not afraid of fines or other penalties but worried they could have a "chilling effect" on lawmakers:

"During the 60s, many of us were arrested many times, beaten, left bloody and unconscious on the march from Selma to Montgomery. But no Congress, nobody, and no committee has the power to tell us that we cannot stand and speak up and speak truth to power." 

Lewis cited founding father Benjamin Franklin as he argued that political dissent is protected by the Constitution:

"As members of Congress, we have a sworn duty to speak up and speak out, if we do not believe the actions of this body represent the will of all Americans. We should never ever give up the right to protest for what is right, what is good, and what is necessary." 

Shortly after Lewis' speech, several Democrats protested the GOP rules changes by taking out their phones and shooting pictures on the floor while flashing copies of the Constitution.

The rules package was ultimately approved 234-193. Every House Democrat, including Georgia's four representatives, voted against the package, while nine of the state's Republicans backed it.

Left out of the rules package was an overhaul of a House ethics watchdog, a contentious proposal Republicans quickly abandoned Tuesday morning.

Read more sit in coverage: 

Report: John Lewis orchestrating protest of GOP plan to punish sit-ins

John Lewis compares House rules penalizing protests to ‘Putin’s Russia’

The House GOP’s plan for disciplining lawmakers following John Lewis’s gun sit-in

‘Reliving my life’: John Lewis’ experience at heart of Capitol sit-in


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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.