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Drag performer Vanity at a March rally at Tribe in Nashville to protest a law that would ban drag performances any place a minor could possibly be present. // John Partipilo / Tennessee Lookout

Federal judge overturns Tennessee’s ban on drag shows


By Holly McCall, Tennessee Lookout

Late Friday, a federal judge overturned a new Tennessee law prohibiting drag performances in public spaces, ruling it unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker ruled the Adult Entertainment Act (AEA) violates the separation-of-powers principle and chills speech protected through the First Amendment.

In March, Friends of George’s, a Memphis theater company that raises funds for LGBTQ groups through performances that include drag, challenged the law, which was originally set to take effect on April 1. Parker placed a stay on the law the day before it was set to be enacted while considering arguments.

In his Friday ruling, Parker wrote that while the state has an interest in protecting minors, the law is not geared to do that. “Instead, that (the legislature’s) predominant concerns involved the suppression of unpopular views of those who wish to impersonate a gender that is different from the one with which they were born.”

Parker noted the law is overly broad and could apply to almost any public area, while adding that lawyers for the State of Tennessee altered the meaning of the AEA from constricting entertainment deemed “harmful to minors” to entertainment damaging to “a reasonable 17-year old.”

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, the legislative bill sponsor, wrote in a Twitter post: “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’s ruling noted the state’s existing obscenity laws “can punish most, and possibly all, of the conduct the AEA seeks to regulate.”

The ruling came with the June 1 start of Pride Month, which features celebrations around the state of LGBTQ rights and culture, many of which have typically featured drag performances.

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

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