The president of a Texas university faces a federal lawsuit after he canceled a campus drag show scheduled for March 31.
Last week, West Texas A&M University president Walter Wendler sent a letter to students, faculty, and staff announcing that student LGBTQ+ group Spectrum WT’s upcoming event benefitting the Trevor Project had been canceled. In the letter, Wendler characterized drag as “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny” and compared it to blackface.
On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Spectrum WT seeking an injunction forcing the university to allow the event on campus, Law and Crime reports. The suit claims that Wendler admitted to censoring the show and that doing so violates the Constitution.
“No amount of fancy rhetorical footwork or legal wordsmithing eludes the fact that drag shows denigrate and demean women—noble goals notwithstanding,” Wendler wrote in his letter. “A harmless drag show? Not possible. I will not appear to condone the diminishment of any group at the expense of impertinent gestures toward another group for any reason, even when the law of the land appears to require it.”
“That ‘law of the land’ is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states. “And our Constitution prohibits public officials, including public university presidents, from silencing Americans because a public official dislikes certain points of view.”
In a March 24 statement, FIRE noted that Wendler has not only violated the First Amendment but also a campus free speech law signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) in 2020. That law explicitly states that “The university may not take action against a student organization or deny the organization any benefit generally available to other student organizations at the university on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint expressed by the organization or of any expressive activities of the organization.”
“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” FIRE’s attorney Adam Steinbaugh said in a March 24 statement. “The First Amendment protects student speech, whether it’s gathering on campus to study the Bible, hosting an acid-tongued political speaker, or putting on a charity drag show.”
“President Wendler has made it clear to us that he knows what his legal obligations are, but he chose to ignore them, and we are thankful to FIRE for taking up our case to protect our First Amendment rights,” Spectrum WT president Bear Bright said. “Hopefully, this lawsuit will not just help us the LGBTQ+ students here at WTAMU protect our rights, but also help protect students’ rights across the U.S.”
FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick called Wendler’s action “textbook viewpoint discrimination.”
“Wendler’s personal opinion on drag shows does not override the Constitution,” Fitzpatrick said. “The show must go on.”