In a significant ruling, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, appointed by former President Donald Trump, has declared a Tennessee law aimed at imposing strict limitations on drag performances as unconstitutional.
Tennessee Law Prohibiting Drag Shows Deemed Unconstitutional
Judge Parker’s late Friday ruling stated that the first-of-its-kind Tennessee law was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” and it encouraged “discriminatory enforcement.”
Highlighting the distinction between material considered obscene in everyday language versus material deemed obscene under the Tennessee law, Judge Parker emphasized that sexually explicit but not obscene speech should receive equal protection under the First Amendment, similar to political, artistic, or scientific speech, CBS News reported.
The Tennessee law, which was set to ban adult cabaret performances from public property or places where minors might be present, carried the risk of misdemeanor or felony charges for performers who violated it.
The legislation was signed into law in March by Republican Governor Bill Lee, who also approved another controversial law prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors. The signing of these laws sparked significant opposition from civil rights organizations, resulting in lawsuits against the state.
In April, Judge Parker temporarily blocked the anti-drag Tennessee law just hours before it was scheduled to take effect, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Memphis-based LGBTQ+ theater company, Friends of George’s. The theater company argued that the law infringed upon their First Amendment rights.
Judge Parker presented the potential effects of the Tennessee law by using the example of a female performer wearing an Elvis Presley costume and imitating the iconic musician, saying that such a performer could be punished under the drag law as a “male impersonator.”
Supporters of Tennessee Law Prohibiting Drag Shows Disappointed With the Ruling
Friends of George’s, elated by the ruling, described it as a triumph over hate and an affirmation of their First Amendment rights as artists.
The theater company emphasized the importance of speaking out against bigotry, drawing parallels to the numerous battles the LGBTQ+ community has faced.
However, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, a Republican and one of the Tennessee law’s main sponsors, expressed disappointment with the ruling, claiming that it was a victory for those supporting the exposure of children to sexual entertainment.
Johnson hoped that the state’s attorney general would appeal what he described as a perplexing ruling.
Initially, the objection enumerated the defendants including Governor Lee, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, and Shelby County District Attorney General Steven Mulroy. However, the plaintiffs later dismissed the governor and attorney general from the case, with Skrmetti continuing to represent Mulroy.
As of now, there has been no response from Skrmetti or Mulroy regarding Judge Parker’s ruling.
The Republican-dominated Legislature in Tennessee advanced the anti-drag Tennessee law, with several GOP members citing drag performances in their hometowns as reasons necessitating restrictions on such shows in public or child-accessible venues. Notably, the law does not explicitly mention the word “drag.”
Instead, lawmakers modified the state’s definition of adult cabaret to include “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors,” categorizing “male or female impersonators” as a form of adult cabaret, identical to strippers or topless dancers.
Judge Parker also indicated that the Tennessee law’s sponsor, Republican state Representative Chris Todd, had previously tried to block a drag show in his district before submitting the legislation.
Although Todd confirmed not having seen the performance, he pursued legal action to halt the show, which ultimately took place indoors with an age restriction.
This incident, among others, led Judge Parker to conclude that the anti-drag Tennessee law aimed to impede drag shows, regardless of their potential harm to minors.