Judge pauses Tennessee law restricting drag performances day before it was set to take effect
A federal judge in Tennessee on Friday temporarily blocked the state from enforcing a ban on public drag show performances, hours before the new law was set to take effect.
US District Court Judge Thomas L. Parker issued an order delaying enforcement of the measure for at least 14 days as he considers whether the ban is unconstitutional.
“At this point, the Court finds that the Statute is likely both vague and overly-broad,” Parker wrote in the order, adding that the state has so far failed to provide a “compelling government interest” for why it should regulate drag performances so severely.
The legislation – signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Lee earlier this month – seeks to limit “adult cabaret performances” on public property so as to shield them from the view of children, threatening violators with a misdemeanor and repeat offenders with a felony. The ban specifically includes “male or female impersonators” who perform in a way that is “harmful to minors.” It was set to go into effect April 1.
The plaintiff – a Memphis-based theater company called Friends of George’s, which includes drag performers – has alleged that the state has sought to “explicitly restrict or chill speech and expression protected by the First Amendment based on its content, its message, and its messenger.” The law, they argued, “targets the performers themselves, unlawfully restricting their expressive conduct not only within the confines of heavily-regulated adult-oriented establishments, but virtually anywhere,” according to the judge’s order.
The state has argued the measure is not a full ban and is only intended to stop overtly sexual performances in front of minors.
But Parker wrote that “given the Defendants’ lack of a clear answer to the Statute’s purpose considering current state obscenity laws, along with the Parties’ present filings on the Statute’s legislative history, the Court finds that Plaintiff has made a likely case for subjecting the Statute to strict scrutiny here.”
The plaintiff’s attorney, Melissa Stewart, celebrated the judge’s order, saying that it “will protect the First Amendment rights of not only our clients, but of the LGBTQIA community across Tennessee, while we move forward with the next steps in this litigation.”
CNN reached the governor’s office Friday night for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
Lee’s approval of the measure – one of nearly a dozen such bills working their way through GOP-led state legislatures – had made Tennessee the first state to restrict public drag show performances this year.
Republicans say the performances expose children to sexual themes and imagery that are inappropriate, a claim rejected by advocates, who say the proposed measures are discriminatory against the LGBTQ community and could violate First Amendment laws.
As drag culture has increasingly become more mainstream, such shows – which often feature men dressing as women in exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, though some shows feature bawdier content – have occasionally been the target of attacks, and LGBTQ advocates say the bills under consideration add to a heightened state of alarm for the community.