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Trump-Appointed Judge Rules Tennessee Anti-Drag Law as Unconstitutional

The judge noted the chance that law enforcement officers could abuse the wide discretion of the law.

Didi Blue Hart performs in drag during a drag show and story hour held at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, on March 31, 2023. The event was held in protest to the passing of legislation that would go into effect the following day that restricts locations where drag performances can take place along with other parts of the bill which are considered transphobic.

On Friday night, a two-day trial pertaining to an anti-drag law in Tennessee ended in a big win for the LGBTQ+ community.

In a surprising move that goes against what one would expect from a Trump appointed judge, U.S. District Court’s Thomas L. Parker ruled the Adult Entertainment Act (AEA) unconstitutional. In his ruling, Parker writes that, “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 . . . 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.”

“Whether some of us may like it or not, the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as protecting speech that is indecent but not obscene,” the judge furthers, explaining that laws of this nature allow opportunity for problematic enforcement.

“The chance that an officer could abuse that wide discretion is troubling given an art form like drag that some would say purposefully challenges the limits of society’s accepted norms,” Parker writes. “The Court emphasizes that the fear of prosecution from law enforcement officers is not merely speculative but certainly impending.”

The AEA was put in force by Republican Gov. Bill Lee back in March, as part of a systematic attack against the LGBTQ+ community — along with a bill banning gender-affirming care for youth — as highlighted by a report from The Advocate. Prior to the signing of the bill, Lee spoke of the intent behind the new law saying that the hope was that it would prevent minors from being exposed to “sexualized entertainment” and “obscenity,” according to an AP News article that also mentions photographs surfacing of Lee in drag himself, unearthed from a high school yearbook.

When asked about the photos, Lee saw no comparison saying, “conflating something like that to sexualized entertainment in front of children” was ridiculous.

Winning out in the suit filed in March to fight against the AEA, Memphis-based theater group Friends of George’s celebrated their win on Friday with a post to Instagram.

“Judge Parker has declared Tennessee’s anti-drag law unconstitutional,” the caption reads. “Friends of George’s would like to thank Brice Timmons and Melissa Stewart at Donati Law and all who have stood by us during this fight!”

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