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Federal judge blocks Tennessee's drag show restrictions

Drag queen Salem Le Strange performs multiple parts in a lip sync at a show in Cookeville.
Marianna Bacallao
Drag queen Salem Le Strange performs multiple parts in a lip sync at a show in Cookeville.

Tennessee’s strict limits on drag shows will not take effect Saturday after a federal judge issued a temporary injunction the night before. The decision sides with a theater company that claimed the law violates the First Amendment.

The rules would have been a first in the nation, banning drag shows from public property or anywhere minors might be present. It created a misdemeanor penalty and a felony for repeat offenses.

But Memphis-based Friends of George’s, which raises money for the LGBTQ community by performing original plays, argued the law isn’t clear on what conduct is prohibited, or what it will mean for its all-ages drag shows.

The state law refers to performers as “male or female impersonators” and says it applies to performances that are “harmful to minors” with “no artistic value.”

U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker issued a 14-day injunction after hearing arguments Thursday. He agreed with the theater company that the statue is vague and overly broad, and wrote that Tennessee failed to make a compelling argument as to why the law was necessary.

“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” Parker wrote. “When the legislature passed this Statute, it missed the mark.”

Parker also questioned the location specifications.

“Does a citizen’s private residence count? How about a camping ground at a national park?” Parker wrote. “Ultimately, the Statute’s broad language clashes with the First Amendment’s tight constraints.”

The lawsuit addressed the state and Shelby County’s top prosecutor, Steve Mulroy, who noted in court that he didn’t object to a temporary pause.

“There has been much concern and confusion about the law from the community,” Mulroy said in a statement to the Associated Press. “This will allow the court to clarify the scope, application and constitutionality of the statute. It’s important to understand the scope of this law so that it doesn’t have a harmful effect on constitutionally protected expression.”

Tony Gonzalez oversees WPLN’s special projects, produces the Curious Nashville podcast, and edits freelance contributions. Since arriving in Nashville in 2011, he’s covered major breaking news, tapped into data and public records for civics stories, and featured inspiring people and unusual tales. He lives in East Nashville with his wife and daughter and dabbles in hobbies like juggling, gardening, and birdwatching.
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