Tennessee law restricting drag shows unconstitutional, federal judge rules

A federal judge appointed by former Republican president Donald Trump has ruled that Tennessee's law restricting drag performances in public or where children are present is unconstitutional, striking a blow to efforts to regulate LGBTQ conduct in U.S. states.

Law signed by state governor in March 'substantially overbroad,' Trump-appointed judge says

Performers in colourful outfits dance on stage.
Performers are seen on stage during the first day of Nashville Pride 2022 on June 25, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. A federal judge ruled late on Friday that Tennessee's new law restricting drag performances was 'both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.' (Mickey Bernal/Getty Images)

A federal judge has ruled that Tennessee's law restricting drag performances in public or where children are present is unconstitutional, striking a blow to efforts to regulate LGBTQ conduct in U.S. states.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee in March signed the bill passed by the state's assembly that aimed to restrict drag performances, putting the state at the forefront of a Republican-led effort to limit drag in at least 15 states in recent months.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, an appointee of former Republican president Donald Trump, ruled late on Friday that the law was "both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad," and encouraged "discriminatory enforcement." 

The First Amendment to the constitution commands that laws infringing on freedom of speech must be narrow and well defined, Parker said in the 70-page ruling.

Separating obscenity from sexually explicit speech

"There is no question that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. But there is a difference between material that is 'obscene' in the vernacular, and material that is 'obscene' under the law," Parker said.

"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," Parker said in the ruling.

Under the law, offenders risked being charged with a misdemeanor or a felony for a repeat offence and prison sentences of up to six years.

Ahead of the 2024 elections, Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 500 bills this year regulating the conduct of gay and transgender people, ranging from what can be taught in schools to bathroom use and medical care.

At least 48 of those bills have passed, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group.

LISTEN | Meet the people behind the drag makeup: 
Drag is everywhere — and it has never been more popular. Across the country, performers are bringing their art to events like drag brunches, drag story time at libraries, and shows at local gay bars. But with this increased visibility and popularity has come backlash, in the form of hate. Drag is happening in communities big and small, and it's not going anywhere. On this Now or Never, you'll meet the people behind the makeup. Find out why these drag artists do what they do, despite the controversy and the hate, and hear the surprising ways that drag has changed their lives.

GLAAD praises judge's decision

Parker had temporarily blocked the law on March 31, just before it was set to go into effect, siding with Friends of George's, a Memphis-based LGBTQ theatre group that filed suit against the state.

GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, praised Parker's decision.

"This ruling is a turning point and we will not go back," GLAAD said in a release.

"Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is on notice that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward," the group said.

With files from The Associated Press