News (USA)

Trump judge throws out Tennessee’s drag ban in major victory

A drag queen reads a book at a St. John, New Brunswick event
Photo: Shutterstock

A federal judge appointed by Donald Trump has ruled against Tennessee’s ban on drag performances, saying that the law is both “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” that it will encourage “discriminatory enforcement,” and that it violates the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

“There is no question that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. But there is a difference between material that is ‘obscene’ in the vernacular, and material that is ‘obscene’ under the law,” judge Thomas Parker ruled on Friday. “Simply put, no majority of the Supreme Court has held that sexually explicit — but not obscene — speech receives less protection than political, artistic, or scientific speech.”

“The [Adult Entertainment Act] was passed for the impermissible purpose of chilling constitutionally-protected speech,” he wrote.

The law, signed by Gov. Bill Lee (R) in early March, bans “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” from appearing “on public property” or “in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” The bill defined “male or female impersonators” as a form of adult cabaret and said that adult cabaret is “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors,” a category that includes strippers.

By April, though, Judge Parker had already issued a temporary injunction against the law in the lawsuit brought by the Memphis LGBTQ+ theater group Friends of George’s (FOG).

“Drag is not a new art form,” the suit read, “nor is it inherently – or even frequently – indecent.”

Now Parker has ruled the law unconstitutional, saying that it could even be used to ban a female Elvis impersonator from performing.

Parker mentioned the bill’s state house sponsor, state Rep. Chris Todd (R), in his ruling, saying that prior to the bill passing, Todd tried to stop a drag show from happening in his district even though he had never seen it himself. He enlisted the help of hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church to protest the show as well as 12 members of a nearby Methodist church, who joined a lawsuit saying that they would “suffer imminent and irreparable injury” if a drag show is allowed “within 1,000 feet of their house of worship.”

The show was forced to move to an indoor location and required ID to make sure that all attendees were over 18.

“This win represents a triumph over hate,” FOG said in a statement. “Similar to the countless battles the LGBTQ+ community has faced over the last several decades, our collective success relies upon everyone speaking out and taking a stand against bigotry.”

Tennessee Republicans were not celebrating. State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R), who sponsored the drag ban when it was in the state senate, said, “Sadly, this ruling is a victory for those who support exposing children to sexual entertainment.”

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