Federal court halts Florida’s drag ban, calling it attempt to ‘suppress the speech’ rights of performers

Injunction marks third time this month Florida governor Ron DeSantis has lost in court on signature policies

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 23 June 2023 23:21 BST
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A federal court temporarily haltedFlorida’s controversial restrictions on drag performances, warning the law was overbroad and could risk infringing on free speech rights.

The SB1438 law, signed in May by Republican governor Ron DeSantis, is “dangerously susceptible to standardless, overbroad enforcement which could sweep up substantial protected speech,” US judge Gregory Presnell wrote in his ruling.

Far from a neutral attempt to protect children, as its backers have sometimes claimed, the law is an admitted attempt to “specifically suppress the speech of drag queen performers,” Judge Presnell wrote.

Drag queens ride on a float during the Stonewall Pride parade on June 17, 2023 in Wilton Manors, Florida
Drag queens ride on a float during the Stonewall Pride parade on June 17, 2023 in Wilton Manors, Florida (Getty Images)

The governor’s office told Reuters the ruling was “dead wrong.”

“Of course it’s constitutional to prevent the sexualization of children by limiting access to adult live performances,” spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said.

The suit against the state comes from Hamburger Mary’s, a restaurant chain that features family-friendly drag performances.

An Orlando franchise of the restaurant filed suit in May.

It claimed the law, which levies criminal penalties at food establishment for admitting children to an “adult live performance,” would “explicitly restrict or chill speech and expression protected by the First Amendment.”

“This bill has nothing to do with children, and everything to do with the continued oppression of the LGBTQ+ community,” Hamburger Mary’s Orlando wrote in a Facebook post.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has made limiting the rights of LGBT+ people a key part of his agenda, signing bills that restrict gender-affirming care, protections for trans people in schools, and access to youth education on gender and sexuality.

This month, courts struck down a Florida rule and statute banning Medicaid payments for transgender healthcare, and partially blocked a state law banning people under 18 from getting gender-affirming medicine.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Tennessee declared the state’s drag ban to be “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”

“There is no question that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment,” Judge Thomas Parker wrote.

“But there is a difference between material that is ‘obscene’ in the vernacular, and material that is ‘obscene’ under the law.”

“Simply put, no majority of the Supreme Court has held that sexually explicit — but not obscene — speech receives less protection than political, artistic, or scientific speech.”

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