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LGBTQ+ students ask Supreme Court to knock down university’s drag ban

drag queen, drag ban, drag performer, female impersonator, Sao,Paulo,,Brazil,-,June,18,,2017:,An,Unidentified,Drag
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LGBTQ+ students at West Texas A&M University have asked the Supreme Court to deliver an “immediate intervention” that would allow the students to hold a March 22 charity drag performance on campus. University President Walter Wendler canceled all on-campus drag performances last year after calling drag a misogynist art form similar to blackface. The students say the cancellation violated their free speech rights.

“Only this Court can halt an ongoing violation of two of the most fundamental First Amendment protections: the bars against prior restraint and viewpoint-based censorship,” stated a letter to the court from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a non-profit free speech group legally representing Spectrum WT, a student-led LGBTQ+ organization.

FIRE filed a federal lawsuit against the university about one year ago after Wendler sent a letter to students, faculty, and staff announcing his cancellation of Spectrum WT’s drag fundraiser for the Trevor Project, an suicide prevention organization for queer youth. Wendler called drag “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny” and compared it to blackface.

“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 2023 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.”

In September 2023, a Texas district court judge denied the students’ request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed a damages claim against Wendler, The Hill reported. FIRE appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals the following month. However, last February, the appeals court declined to expedite the appeal. FIRE and Spectrum WT said the court’s refusal showed that “the judicial safety net” had broken down.

In a March 24, 2023 statement, FIRE noted that Wendler has violated the First Amendment as well as a 2020 campus free speech law that explicitly states, “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 the 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.”

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will issue the emergency action. In November, the high court declined to hear a case that would re-instate Florida’s anti-drag law after a lower court blocked it. Last September, a federal judge struck down Texas’ drag ban, calling it “an unconstitutional restriction on speech.”

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