A gag rule is a rule that limits or forbids the raising, consideration or discussion of a particular topic by members of a legislative or decision-making body. The term originated in the mid-1830s when the U.S. House of Representatives barred discussion or referral to committee of antislavery petitions.
Such rules are often criticized because they abridge freedom of speech, which is normally given extremely high value when exercised by members of legislative or decision-making bodies (see Parliamentary privilege and Congressional immunity). On the other hand, gag rules are typically defended on the ground that they help preserve consensus by placing potentially divisive controversies "off the table" of debate.
A present-day example can be found in the Dewan Negara (Senate) of Malaysia, which has a standing order prohibiting any member from proposing the repeal of those articles of the Malaysian Constitution that reserve certain privileges for Bumiputra (ethnic Malay) citizens.
A gag rule may be formally neutral, that is, forbidding discussions or arguments either for or against a particular policy. For example, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of King Charles I of England:
... forbade ministers to discuss the sublime mysteries associated with Calvin's doctrine of predestination. They could not preach it, nor could they preach against it. They could not mention it at all... For Laud, what was at stake was not so much the promotion of his own theological opinions as the suppression of the furor theologicus that had caused so much devastation in England and throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation.
However, in practice, the effect (and in most cases, the intent) of even an even-handed ban on advocating or opposing a particular policy will be to entrench the status quo.
Anti-slavery petitions in the United States Congress in 1836-1844
The gagging of anti-slavery petitions by Congress occurred from 1836 to 1844. Pro-slavery forces had prevented any discussion of slavery in Congress, so anti-slavery forces, starting in about 1831, had submitted petitions for the abolition of slavery, believing that since there was a right to petition the government as guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution, such petitions, and thus slavery itself, would have to be discussed.
The pro-slavery forces responded with a series of gag rules that automatically "tabled" all such petitions, preventing them from being read or discussed.
The House passed the Pinckney Resolutions on May 26, 1836, the third of which was known from the beginning as the "gag rule" and passed with a vote of 117 to 68 (The first stated that Congress had no constitutional authority to interfere with slavery in the states and the second that it "ought not" do so in the District of Columbia.)
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