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Federal judge shuts down Tennessee’s anti-drag bill: “It missed the mark”

Nina West is holding drag queen story time online until the pandemic passes
Nina West is holding drag queen story time online until the pandemic passes. Tennessee's bill is so vague that a kid watching the story time online at a public library could be a violation. Photo: Instagram

A federal judge in Tennessee has temporarily blocked the state’s recently passed law which would severely restrict drag performances.

On Friday, Donald Trump-appointed Judge Thomas Parker sided with Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based LGBTQ+ theater group, issuing a temporary restraining order against the law, which would criminalize “adult cabaret entertainment” in locations where it “could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” The law, signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) earlier this month, is the first in the nation aimed at restricting drag performances by specifically including language that bans “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.”

Friends of George’s filed the suit on March 27 against the state of Tennessee, Lee, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

The suit argued that drag performance includes a wide range of styles that are unfairly targeted by the law. “Drag is not a new art form,” the suit read, “nor is it inherently – or even frequently – indecent.”

In his Friday ruling, Parker wrote, “At this point, the Court finds that the Statute is likely both vague and overly-broad.”

Friends of George’s argued that the law’s language could apply to drag performers “virtually anywhere.” Judge Parker agreed, writing, “What exactly is a location on public property or a ‘location where an adult cabaret entertainment could be viewed by a person who is not an adult’? Does a citizen’s private residence count? How about a camping ground at a national park? What if a minor browsing the worldwide web from a public library views an ‘adult cabaret performance’? Ultimately, the Statute’s broad language clashes with the First Amendment’s tight constraints.”

Parker wrote that the law would bar Friends of George’s “from engaging in protected First Amendment expression” under threat of criminal penalties.

“If the Statute takes effect and Defendants prosecute Plaintiff, it will likely suffer irreparable harm with criminal sanctions,” Parker wrote. “These penalties carry with them, among other things, potential loss of liberty and great reputational harm. But even without enforcement, the vague and overly-broad nature of the Statute can have a chilling effect on speech.”

“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” Parker concluded. “The Court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this Statute, it missed the mark.”

On Saturday, the day the new law would have gone into effect, Friends of George’s posted a statement via its official Twitter account. “Friends of George’s is dedicated to championing the freedom of expression for not only ourselves but for everyone across Tennessee. We stand in solidarity with all drag performers, the LGBTQIA+ community, and our allies as we continue the fight for justice, self-expression, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As USA Today notes, the temporary restraining order will be in place for at least 14 days, with the possibility of an extension.

“We won because this is a bad law,” Friends of George’s board president Mark Campbell said. “We look forward to our day in court where the rights for all Tennesseans will be affirmed.”

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