A federal judge in Tennessee has ruled that a state law limiting public drag show performances represented an “unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech.”
“As a matter of text alone, the (Adult Entertainment Act) is a content, and viewpoint-based restriction on speech. The AEA was passed for the impermissible purpose of chilling constitutionally-protected speech,” US District Court Judge Thomas Parker, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said in a 70-page late-Friday ruling.
Parker, who called the law “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” also barred the defendant in the case – the district attorney of Shelby County, which is home to Memphis – from enforcing the law in that county.
The court ruling comes after Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based nonprofit that produces drag performances and comedy sketches, sued in March to stop the law from going into effect, arguing it was a violation of its free speech. Parker then temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the ban as he considered the law’s constitutionality.
Tennessee Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the state legislature, earlier this year passed the measure to restrict public drag show performances, which was signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. The law sought to limit “adult cabaret performances” on public property to shield children from viewing them, threatening violators with a misdemeanor and repeat offenders with a felony. The ban specifically included “male or female impersonators” who perform in a way that is “harmful to minors.” It had been set to go into effect April 1.
“WE WON!” Friends of George’s wrote in a tweet Saturday. “Judge Parker has declared Tennessee’s anti-drag law unconstitutional!”
Tennessee officials have argued that the measure is not a full ban and is only intended to stop overtly sexual performances in front of minors. Parker, in his ruling, acknowledged the state’s “compelling interest in protecting the psychological and physical wellbeing of children” but ruled against the law as “an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech.”
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said in a statement Saturday that his office was reviewing the order and expects to appeal “at the appropriate time.”
“The scope of this law has been misrepresented in public by those more interested in pressing a narrative than in reading the statutory text,” Skrmetti said. “The Adult Entertainment Act remains in effect outside of Shelby County. This narrowly-tailored law protects minors from exposure to sexually explicit performances. Its operative language is rooted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s long-established First Amendment precedent.”
CNN has also reached out to Lee’s office for comment.
Tennessee’s law is just one of a slew of other similar measures that Republican-led state legislatures across the country have considered this year.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president, signed a bill last month that, among other things, gives his administration the power to take away licenses from establishments if they allow children into an “adult live performance,” widely interpreted as a crackdown on drag shows.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed legislation in May that prevents children from attending “sexually oriented shows” and from being present at obscene performances on public property. It specifically targets drag story hours, which it defines as “an event hosted by a drag queen or drag king who reads children’s books and engages in other learning activities with minor children present.”
Republicans say the performances – which often feature men dressing as women in exaggerated makeup while singing or entertaining a crowd, though some shows feature bawdier content – expose children to sexual themes and imagery that are inappropriate. LGBTQ advocates, however, argue that not all drag shows are sexual in nature and laws such as the ones in Montana and Tennessee stigmatize the community and could violate the First Amendment.