Updated Jun 4, 2023 - News

Federal judge blocks "unconstitutional" Tennessee drag law

Illustration of a row of gavels, with all but one of them transparent.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A federal judge struck down a Tennessee law aimed at restricting drag performances, saying it violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

Driving the news: U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Parker issued his ruling late Friday following a bench trial last month. He wrote that the law was "both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad."

  • Parker, a Trump appointee, previously blocked the law from being enforced while he considered the legal arguments.

Why it matters: The Republican-dominated General Assembly passed the law earlier this year after multiple lawmakers complained about drag shows around the state.

  • LGBTQ+ advocates worried it would be used to stop drag performances or to target transgender residents.

The latest: Soon after the ruling, Tennessee attorney general Jonathan Skrmetti said an appeal was likely. Skrmetti argued the law remained in effect outside of Shelby County, where the lawsuit originated, although multiple lawyers disputed that position.

  • "This narrowly-tailored law protects minors from exposure to sexually explicit performances," Skrmetti said in a statement. "We are reviewing the order and expect to appeal at the appropriate time.”

Zoom in: The law made it a criminal offense to perform "adult cabaret" in public or anywhere minors could see it.

  • It defined such a performance as "adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors" under the state's obscenity code. The law said those performances might include "male or female impersonators."

State of play: Friends of George's, a Memphis theater company that features drag performances, saying the law infringed on the right to free speech. Parker agreed, declaring the law "unconstitutional."

"Simply put, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the [law] — a statute regulating speech with criminal sanctions — in a way that is purposefully overbroad such that it can chill speech that may be constitutionally-protected," Parker wrote.

  • The judge also noted that comments from state Rep. Chris Todd (R-Madison County), one of the bill's sponsors, suggested that the law was "geared towards placing prospective blocks on drag shows — regardless of their potential harm to minors."

Between the lines: The lawsuit was filed against the Shelby County prosecutor in his official capacity because of his role enforcing state laws. Parker said the law "cannot be enforced consistently with the supreme law of the land; the United States Constitution."

What they're saying: Friends of George's said in a statement that the court win "represents a triumph over hate."

The other side: State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), who sponsored the law in the Senate, said "this ruling is a victory for those who support exposing children to sexual entertainment."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from Tennessee attorney general Jonathan Skrmetti.

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