Federal judge tosses Tennessee's controversial anti-drag law, declares it unconstitutional

In a significant win for LGBTQ advocates, a federal judge has tossed out Tennessee's controversial law restricting drag performances, after hearings in which the law's necessity and broad language were questioned.

Judge Thomas Parker issued his ruling just after midnight Friday, writing that, "the Court finds that — despite Tennessee’s compelling interest in protecting the psychological and physical wellbeing of children — the Adult Entertainment Act (“AEA”) is an UNCONSTITUTIONAL (sic) restriction on the freedom of speech."

The bill restricting "male and female impersonators" from performing in public spaces was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee at the start of March. The bill was one of several to come out of the 2023 legislative session that was said to target LGBTQ Tennesseans.

Drag queens walk to their spot in the parade lineup before the Memphis Pride Parade on Saturday, June 4, 2022, on Beale Street. The parade returns in-person this year for the first time since 2019.

Drag shows. That'll save us!Tennessee Republicans target America's greatest threat

By late March, a Memphis-based theater group, Friends of George's, filed suit against the state. The group wrote on its website in March the bill, imperils the lives of "drag performers and seeks to oppress queer culture state-wide."

“This win represents a triumph over hate,” Friends of George’s in a statement Saturday. “Our first amendment rights were affirmed today as drag artists and makers of theatre. Similar to the countless battles the LGBTQ+ community has faced over the last several decades, our collective success relies upon everyone speaking out and taking a stand against bigotry.”

Defense attorneys for the state focused on why the law was necessary to protect any minors who may be exposed to indecency. But, Parker questioned the necessity of the bill, noting Tennessee already had thorough laws on the books that banned obscenity.

'A stand against bigotry'

Mark Campbell, aka Camille Collins, a resident company member and president of Friends of George’s sai“This ruling is a turning point and we will not go back,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD president and CEO. “Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is on notice that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward. Congratulations and thank you to Friends of George’s and their attorneys for speaking up and fighting for everyone’s freedom. Their bravery will inspire many other challenges to discrimination.”

'Wasted our time'

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, also tweeted about the ruling Saturday morning.

“As I opined on House floor and as a federal judge has now held, the GOP supermajority’s 'drag show ban' violates the 1st Amendment (because) it is 'unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.' The TN GOP wasted our time and tax dollars yet again."d the nonprofit, “Chose to take a stand against bigotry to defend drag artistry and our right to creative expression.”

“The stage should remain a sacred platform where actors and performers can inspire others in a shared space,” Campbell said. “Our country is built on the bedrock of free speech, and the court affirmed this right through today's decision. We will keep advocating for our fellow drag performers and for the well-being of the entire LGBTQ+ community."

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