Apr 1, 2023
Tennessee Drag Ban Temporarily Blocked by Trump-Appointed Judge
(Bloomberg) -- A new Tennessee law restricting drag performances in public was temporarily blocked by a federal judge who ruled the politically charged statute may have “missed the mark.”
The law, which had been set to take effect Saturday, was put on hold for at least two weeks in a ruling late Friday by US District Judge Thomas L. Parker in Memphis, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.
“The United States Constitution — a law that is supreme even to the Tennessee General Assembly’s acts — has placed some issues beyond the reach of the democratic process,” Parker wrote. “First among them is the freedom of speech.”
The office of Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, a Republican who defended the law, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. Legislators argued that the law was needed to protect minors from what they consider age-inappropriate material.
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Drag performances have come under fire as Republican politicians latched onto the issue to demonstrate their conservative bona fides, including potential 2024 presidential candidate Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In 2022, there were at least 124 incidents of protests, threats and violent actions against drag events and venues in the US, a November report showed.
The Tennessee bill, passed in March, restricts “adult cabaret performances,” including “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest.”
The suit was filed by Friends of George’s Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that produces “dragcentric performances, comedy sketches, and plays,” according to the ruling. Parker agreed with the plaintiff that lawmakers may have gone too far based on the record in the case so far, given the broad protections of the First Amendment. The judge said state legislatures are “laboratories of democracy” whose experiments “are not without constraints.”
“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” the judge said. “The Court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this Statute, it missed the mark.”
Melissa J. Stewart, a lawyer for Friends of George’s, said the judge’s order reflected that the “law is unconstitutionally vague, over-broad and clearly targeted at the LGBTQIA community.”
“This order 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,” she said.
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