July/August 2023 Church & State Magazine - July/August 2023

Federal court strikes down Tenn. law curbing drag shows


A Tennessee law intended to restrict certain types of drag performances was struck down by a federal judge on June 2.

 U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, an appointee of President Donald Trump, ruled that the measure, known as the Adult Entertainment Act, was “both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” reported Reuters. 

Parker added, “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.” 

The law, Parker ruled, “reeks with constitutional maladies of vagueness.” He said the legislature “carelessly, if not intentionally” put the law into place “for the inappropriate purpose of chilling constitutionally free speech.” (Parker’s ruling applies only to the Memphis area, but it’s a strong signal that the law is too flawed to be enforced elsewhere in the state.)

Tennessee legislators passed the measure earlier this year, and it was signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee (R). The bill was among a wave of anti-drag proposals that surfaced in several states. It banned “adult-oriented entertainment” that is “harmful to minors” from public property and places where such performances might be seen by children. The law singled out “male and female impersonators” and treated them the same as “go-go dancers, exotic dancers [and] strippers.”

Reuters reported that under the terms of the bill, violators could have been sentenced to a year in prison. Repeated offenders could have been sentenced to six years. 

 A theater group in Memphis called Friends of George’s that often sponsors drag shows challenged the law in court. 

Drag performers argued that not all such performances are adult-oriented. Drag queens, for example, often read stories to children at libraries and other venues.

State officials say they plan to appeal the ruling in the Friends of George’s Inc. v. Mulroy case.

Similar anti-drag laws have been passed in Florida and Montana. For more on this topic, see “Dragging Down Drag,” April 2023 Church & State.

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