Federal judge rules Texas university that canceled drag show did not violate free speech rights

A federal judge has ruled that a university in the Texas Panhandle did not violate the constitutional right to free speech when the school's president canceled a drag show earlier this year.

The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk on Thursday, stands out among a number of high-profile legal battles over drag shows across the United States. Notably, federal courts have blocked drag show bans in Florida, Montana, Tennessee and a separate federal judge in Texas.

However, in his ruling, Kacsmaryk argued that drag shows are “sexualized content” and therefore can be regulated more than other forms of free speech.

“The First Amendment does not prevent school officials from restricting ‘vulgar and lewd' conduct that would ‘undermine the essential educational mission of the school' — particularly in settings where children are physically present,” Kacsmaryk wrote.

Earlier this year, Walter Wendrell, president of West Texas A&M University in Canyon, which is just south of Amarillo, announced in a letter and column full of religious references that drag shows would not be allowed on campus because, he said, they were discriminatory. women. He also wrote that such performances were “degrading, divisive and discouraging misogyny, regardless of the stated intent”.

Spectrum WT — a group for LGBTQ+ students and allies — had planned a drag show on campus for March 31 to raise money for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit group that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. Spectrum WT said drag was not designed to be offensive, arguing that it is a celebration of many things, including “queerness, gender, acceptance, love and especially femininity.”

Spectrum WT and its two student leaders who filed the suit are represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a national civil liberties group.

“FIRE strongly disagrees with the court's approach to First Amendment analysis and its conclusions. We will appeal and our fight for the expressive rights of these brave students will continue,” JT Morris, senior attorney for FIRE, said in a statement.

Representatives for both the university and the university system, which are named in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment Friday.

Kacsmaryk, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, previously gained national attention when he issued an unprecedented ruling halting the approval of the country's most common abortion method. The decision sparked a legal firestorm, but it did not take effect because a separate federal judge ruled essentially the opposite in a different case in Washington.

Meanwhile, drag shows across the country continue to be targeted by right-wing activists and politicians, with Republican lawmakers in several states, including Texas, proposing restrictions. And nationwide events like drag story hours, where drag queens read books to children, have drawn protesters.

Drag does not usually involve nudity or stripping, which are more common in the distinct art of burlesque. Overtly sexual and profane language is common in drag shows, but such content is avoided when the target audience is children. In shows intended for adults, venues or performers generally warn in advance of age-inappropriate content.