Judge temporarily blocks Tennessee law restricting drag performances
NASHVILLE — A federal judge temporarily blocked the implementation of a Tennessee law aimed at restricting public performances by dragsters on Friday, hours before it took effect.
A Memphis theater company that frequently puts on drag shows, Friends of George’s, challenged the law this week, arguing that the law’s ambiguity violated the theater’s constitutional rights. Violators of the law would be charged with a misdemeanor or felony for continued infractions.
The measure, passed by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed into law on March 1, was due to go into effect on Saturday. It makes no explicit mention of cruising but prohibits “adult cabaret” and performances on public property by topless, go-go or exotic dancers, strippers or male or female impersonators who are “harmful to minors”.
But the obscurity of the language, coupled with a concerted effort by conservative lawmakers across the country to limit the rights of the LGBTQ community, had raised concerns about the implications for drag performers and transgender and gender-nonconforming people. .
Judge Thomas L. Parker agreed to delay the implementation of the law for at least 14 days, acknowledging that the company’s concerns about future representations – whether imposing a limit of age or risk legal scrutiny – were not “insignificant problems for a theater company – certainly not in the free civil society that we consider our country.
“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its policing power by restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the bounds and framework of the Constitution of the United States,” Judge Parker wrote in the order. “The court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this law, it missed the mark.”
Judge Parker was nominated by former President Donald J. Trump and unanimously confirmed to District Court for the Western District of Tennessee in 2018.
Spokespersons for Steven J. Mulroy, the district attorney for Shelby County, which includes Memphis, and Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, did not immediately return requests for comment on Friday. Mr. Mulroy did not oppose the application for an interim order.
In its costume, the theater company had highlighted the global history of drag performance, from male actors who performed female roles in plays by William Shakespeare to American vaudeville productions. He also pointed to a successful effort by Rep. Chris Todd, a Republican state legislator, to restrict a drag performance during a Pride parade in Jackson, Tennessee, last year, and noted that several organizations had already dropped plans to hold drag events as part of Pride celebrations this year because of the law.
“We won because it’s bad law,” Mark Campbell, chairman of the theater company’s board, said in a statement. “We look forward to our day in court where the rights of all Tennesseans will be affirmed.”
The theater is set to open “Drag Rocks,” billed as a mix of comedy and drag performances, on April 14.