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Tennessee drag ban is struck down by federal judge: ‘Unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad’

‘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’

Bevan Hurley
Saturday 03 June 2023 15:48 BST
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Marjorie Taylor Greene's boyfriend wears drag despite her anti-drag stance

A federal judge has tossed out a controversial Tennessee law that restricted drag performances in a significant win for LGBT+ advocates.

Judge Thomas Parker issued a ruling on Friday night that the law, one of several anti-LGBT+ bills passed by the Republican legislature this year, was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”

“There is no question that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment,” the Trump-appointed judge 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.”

In February, Tennessee became the first state to approve restrictions on where drag shows can be performed.

The bill signed into law by Governor Bill Lee effectively banned drag performances on public property or in spaces where minors are present.

It didn’t explicitly mention drag shows, but called for enforcement of “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors”. Male or female impersonators could face misdemeanour criminal charges, with repeat offenders facing felonies.

Pageant winners throw out at the Memphis Pride Festival & Parade.

In March, Memphis-based theatre group Friends of George filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the ban, stating on its website that it “imperils the lives of drag performers and seeks to oppress queer culture state-wide”.

The injunction prevented the ban from coming into effect as planned in April.

In his ruling, Judge Parker cited an example of a female performer dressed as Elvis Presley could be at risk of punishment under the law because they would be considered a “male impersonator.”

“We won!” Friends of George declared after the decision was issued.

Advocates celebrated the ruling, which came as the LGBT+ community kicked off Pride Month celebrations across the United States.

“As we always say — Tennessee Republicans don’t pass laws, they pass lawsuits,” the Tennessee Holler wrote on Twitter.

“And just like that, drag remains legal in Tennessee,” civil rights lawyer Melissa Stewart wrote.

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