Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Parliamentary Procedure - Filibusters - Texas State Senator Wendy Davis Filibusters Abortion Bill

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Parliamentary Procedure - Filibusters - Texas State Senator Wendy Davis Filibusters Abortion Bill

Article excerpt


As partisan gridlock has intensified in recent years, a familiar senatorial practice--the filibuster--has emerged as a prominent culprit. The filibuster, which allows a senator to block or delay legislation and nominations by taking advantage of rules permitting unlimited debate, has been lambasted as an arcane tradition that reduces legislative accountability and prevents the democratically elected majority from doing its work. On June 25, 2013, however, the nation witnessed a new kind of filibuster when Texas State Senator Wendy Davis stood on the floor of the state legislature for eleven hours to protest the passage of a bill severely restricting access to abortion: a filibuster propelled by social media. Senator Davis's stand both inspired and relied upon the engagement of the public to defeat the legislation. The episode suggests that in the age of new media, the talking filibuster may promote, rather than impede, democracy in the legislative process by rallying public involvement and boosting legislative accountability.

Senator Davis took to the floor of the Texas Senate at 11:18 AM on June 25, planning to filibuster until a special session of the Legislature ended at midnight. (1) The object of her protest was Senate Bill 5 (S.B. 5), a controversial abortion measure championed by the State Senate's Republican majority. (2) The bill sought to ban abortions after twenty weeks and impose new regulations on the administration of the abortion-inducing drug RU-486. (3) The legislation also would have required abortion providers in the state to have admitting privileges at a hospital within thirty miles (4)--a near-impossible requirement for many rural providers--and would have mandated that abortion facilities meet regulatory standards for ambulatory surgical centers, (5) which likely would have shuttered at least thirty-six of the state's forty-two abortion facilities. (6) If Senator Davis could hold the Senate floor until midnight, the legislative session would end before the bill could be passed.

As the filibuster approached, Senator Davis and abortion-rights groups publicized the event via social media. Using Facebook, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas organized rides for supporters to watch the event at the Capitol. (7) Bloggers exhorted readers to contact news outlets and to use Twitter ("tweet") to support the filibuster. (8) On June 24, Senator Davis tweeted: "The leadership may not want to listen to TX women, but they will have to listen to me. I intend to filibuster [S.B. 5]." (9) She urged supporters to "[s]tand with me tomorrow, and share your story with me so I can tell it from the Senate floor." (10)

Supporters heeded Senator Davis's call. Testimonials poured in to her website, providing content for her to read on the Senate floor. (11) Those testimonials proved crucial, as Texas filibuster rules limit senators to topics relevant to the bill being discussed. (12) Senator Davis's backers also tuned in to the online video stream of the Senate chamber, broadcast via YouTube by the Texas Tribune. (13) Commentators noted that the stream's availability through YouTube--a more modern, accessible, and shareable platform than the Legislature's video interface--accounted for much of the filibuster's popularity. (14)

While YouTube supplied the technology for viewers to witness the filibuster, social media provided the publicity as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr users stirred up what one local activist termed a "tweetstorm" in support of Senator Davis's endeavor. (15) Interest groups such as Planned Parenthood Texas and Annie's List "live-tweeted" from the Senate gallery, reporting snippets of the action to Twitter followers. (16) The American Civil Liberties Union's Texas branch coined the Twitter hashtag "#standwithwendy," which was used more than half a million times (17) and trended worldwide, (18) making it one of the most commonly discussed topics on Twitter that evening. …

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