Federal Judge Strikes Down Tennessee’s ‘Unconstitutional’ Drag Bill

HRC's Tenn. Anti-Drag Bills Press Conference - Credit: John Amis/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign
HRC's Tenn. Anti-Drag Bills Press Conference - Credit: John Amis/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign

Over two months after Tennessee’s restrictive anti-drag law was scheduled to go into effect, a federal judge has blocked the bill, deeming it “unconstitutional.”

In a ruling issued after midnight Friday, District Judge Thomas Parker wrote 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 restriction on the freedom of speech.”

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In late-March, after Gov. Bill Lee signed the AEA into law, Memphis-based LGBTQ theatre group Friends of George’s filed a lawsuit against the state, calling the AEA unconstitutional.

“Under this reading of the law, a drag queen wearing a mini skirt and a cropped top and dancing in front of children violates this statute, but a Tennessee Titans cheerleader wearing precisely the same outfit doing precisely the same routine does not, because she is not a ‘female impersonator,’” the lawsuit noted.

Following that federal court hearing, Judge Parker temporarily halted the AEA just hours before it was due to go into effect on April 1.

Parker’s ruling Friday effectively — for now — prevents lawmakers from enforcing the controversial bill that restricted public drag performances and “adult cabaret” in Tennessee; as the Commercial Appeal notes, the ruling came just hours before a pair of Pride Month festivals in Memphis and Middle Tennessee were set to begin Saturday.

“The AEA’s ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement,” Parker — who Pink News reports was a Trump-appointed judge — wrote in his 70-page decision. “The AEA is substantially over-broad because it applies to public property or ‘anywhere’ a minor could be present.”

Parker added that the anti-drag bill threatened a “content- and viewpoint-based restriction on speech” that was passed with the “impermissible purpose of chilling constitutionally-protected speech.”

“WE WON!” Friends of George’s tweeted Saturday morning after Parker’s ruling.

“This win represents a triumph over hate,” Friends of George’s added in a statement to Rolling Stone. “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.”

Tennessee’s anti-drag legislation is one of several similar bills being weighed across the country, and one of several bills aimed at the state’s LGBTQ+ community. There are currently multiple bills targeting trans healthcare, including one that is attempting to make it illegal to change one’s sex on official documents like birth certificates and driver’s licenses.

“We won because this is a bad law” Mark Campbell, current President of the Board of Directors for Friends of George’s, previously said in April when Parker halted the AEA. “We look forward to our day in court where the rights for all Tennesseans will be affirmed.”

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