Tennessee Bill Banning Drag Shows in Front of Children Unconstitutional: Federal Judge

Tennessee Bill Banning Drag Shows in Front of Children Unconstitutional: Federal Judge
(Ekaterina Bolovtsova/Pexels)
Zachary Stieber

The Tennessee law that prohibits drag shows in front of children is unconstitutional, a U.S. judge ruled on June 2.

The Adult Entertainment Act (AEA) "is both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad," U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, a Trump appointee, said in the ruling.

The law makes it a criminal offense for a person to “perform adult cabaret entertainment” on public property or in a place where it could be viewed by a minor. Adult cabaret entertainment is defined in the law as shows featuring strippers, men dressed as women, or similar entertainers.

The law was signed by Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on March 2 after being approved by the state Legislature. However, before it took effect, Parker temporarily blocked it in March after finding that the law was "likely both vague and overly broad."

Parker in the new ruling said that the law indeed violated the constitutional rights of Friends of George’s, a theater company that holds drag shows in Memphis and allows children to attend, even though the nonprofit acknowledged that its performances could contain sexual content comparable to what would warrant a PG-13 rating in a movie.

In one play, for instance, characters "portrayed sexual acts," meaning it could be interpreted as being in violation of the law, the judge said.

Parker zeroed in on the standard outlined for "harmful to minors," which is so defined in the Tennessee criminal code:

"That quality of any description or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence or sadomasochistic abuse when the matter or performance:

"A. Would be found by the average person applying contemporary community standards to appeal predominately to the prurient, shameful or morbid interests of minors;

"B. Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors; and

"C. Taken as whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific values for minors."

Parker ruled, "The AEA's 'harmful to minors' standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement."

He also said the law was "substantially overbroad because it applies to public property or 'anywhere' a minor could be present."

The ruling enjoins Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy from enforcing the law.

The district attorney's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.


State Sen. Jack Johnson, a Republican who sponsored the legislation, said in a statement: "I’m disappointed with the judge’s decision on Senate Bill 3, which ignored 60 years of Supreme Court precedent allowing regulation of obscene entertainment in the presence of minors. Sadly, this ruling is a victory for those who support exposing children to sexual entertainment.”

Parker wrote in his ruling, "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."

Johnson added, "Despite the court's perplexing reading of the law, I am confident—and have always been—that this legislation does nothing to suppress the First Amendment."

The lawmaker also said that Tennessee officials should appeal Parker's ruling.

Neither Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti nor Lee has reacted to the ruling.

"WE WON!" Friends of George’s said in a statement. The nonprofit, which describes itself as a theater company that "produces original theatrical content for the LGBTQ+ community and its friends and allies" with the goal of raising money for other nonprofits, thanked supporters.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation also cheered the ruling.

"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 stated.

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