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District attorney threatens Pride event with charges under drag ban

District attorney threatens Pride event with charges under drag ban

In Blount County, Tennessee, local attorney general Ryan Desmond sent a letter Tuesday to organizers of a Pride event scheduled for Saturday, threatening them with prosecution for what he anticipates will be violations of Tennessee’s drag ban.

The chilling warning comes despite the fact a federal judge blocked the drag ban in June, ruling it unconstitutional.

That hasn’t stopped Desmond from claiming he has the authority to prosecute any drag performer who “appeals to a prurient interest,” in the words of the Adult Entertainment Act.

“It is certainly possible that the event in question will not violate any of the criminal statutes,” Desmond wrote in a three-page “notice” addressed to Blount Pride organizers and distributed to local law enforcement, “however if sufficient evidence is presented to this office that these referenced criminal statutes have been violated, our office will ethically and justly prosecute these cases in the interest of justice.”

The invitation to present “sufficient evidence” was shared with the Blount County sheriff and two local police chiefs.

The drag ban signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) in early March prohibits “male or female impersonators” 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 defines adult cabaret as adult-oriented performances “that feature topless dancers, go-go entertainers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators or similar entertainers.”

On June 2, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, a Trump appointee, ruled the drag ban “is an unconstitutional restriction on speech.”

The suit seeking the injunction was filed against State Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy. Skrmetti maintains the injunction applies only to Shelby County, where the suit was filed. Desmond says he’s following Skrmetti’s lead in his claim the law is still valid everywhere else in the state.

“My legal analysis leads me to concur with the State Attorney General, both as to the constitutionality of the AEA as well as the applicability of the District Court’s order controlling only the District Attorney for the 30th Judicial District.”

Blount Pride 2023 is scheduled for Saturday afternoon and evening at the Clayton Center for the Arts at Maryville College and will feature a headline performance by drag performer Flamy Grant, among other acts that could run afoul of the enjoined law.

College President Bryan Coker, another recipient of Desmond’s “notice,” said Blount Pride had agreed to conduct the event “in compliance with all applicable laws,” and he saw “no problem with the event going forward.”

In a memo to faculty and staff, Coker was more worried about “individuals and groups outside the college who are opposed to the Pride Festival and are planning to protest the event.”

Blount Pride board president Ari Baker said their organization will be filing suit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee in response to Desmond’s threat.

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