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Officials can’t interfere with Pride festival in Tennessee under anti-drag law, judge rules

A drag artist raising a fist and speaking at an event, joined by other activists, one with a sign reading "Care for all kids"
Drag artist Vidalia Anne Gentry speaks out in February against anti-drag bills in the Tennessee Legislature in Nashville.
(John Amis / Associated Press)
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A federal judge ruled Friday that law enforcement officials can’t use a Tennessee law that strictly limits drag shows to interfere with a Pride festival this weekend, favoring event organizers who had sued after a district attorney warned that he intended to enforce the new statute even after another federal judge ruled it unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer in Knoxville granted a temporary restraining order that prevents Dist. Atty. Ryan Desmond and other law enforcement officials in Blount County from enforcing the state law or interfering with a Pride festival scheduled in the county for Saturday. The restraining order prohibits discouraging third parties from hosting or modifying the event, including the venue of Maryville College, the judge wrote.

Earlier this year, a federal judge across the state in Memphis ruled that Tennessee’s law against drag shows was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” and encouraged “discriminatory enforcement.” The ruling was celebrated by LGBTQ+ advocates, but quickly sparked questions because the court said the decision only applied to Shelby County, where Memphis lies.

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A federal judge says Tennessee’s first-in-the-nation law designed to place strict limits on drag shows is unconstitutional.

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Some legal experts have speculated that district attorneys across the state won’t enforce a law that a federal judge said violated the 1st Amendment, but others, including state Atty. Gen. Jonathan Skrmetti, were quick to point out that the law remained in effect outside Shelby County. Skrmetti’s office is appealing the ruling applying to Shelby County.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee filed the lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of event organizers. Drag artist Flamy Grant, who was hired to perform at the event, is also a plaintiff.

Desmond sent a letter to Blount County Pride organizers this week announcing he planned to enforce the state’s anti-drag law.

“It is certainly possible that the event in question will not violate any of the criminal statutes,” Desmond wrote. “However if sufficient evidence is presented to this office that these referenced criminal statutes have been violated, our office will ethically and justly prosecute these cases in the interest of justice.”

The letter was addressed to the Pride organizers, as well as the county mayor, law enforcement groups and other public officials.

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In Friday’s court ruling, the judge wrote that the Memphis federal judge’s previous ruling was “well-written, scrupulously researched, and highly persuasive.” He also wrote that “the record strongly, and maybe even conclusively, suggests that District Attorney Desmond issued his notice in response” to Grant’s inclusion in the festival’s entertainment plans.

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“This ruling allows us to fully realize Blount Pride’s goal of creating a safe place for LGBTQ people to connect, celebrate, and share resources,” Blount Pride Board President Ari Baker said in a news release. “We appreciate the community support and look forward to celebrating with you all on Saturday.”

Amy Wilhite, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said officials there expected the issues raised in the Blount County case to be “decisively resolved” by the state’s appeal in the Shelby County case.

In a court filing responding to the lawsuit, Desmond wrote that his letter did not threaten enforcement.

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The judge responded that Desmond did warn would-be violators of the law of his authority and his intention to prosecute them. Additionally, the judge wondered why the district attorney sent the notice to multiple local law enforcement officials, “if, as he now claims, his notice is merely a paper tiger and nothing more.”

In conservative Tennessee, drag performances and LGBTQ+ rights have increasingly been targeted by the Republican-dominant General Assembly.

The Legislature’s GOP supermajority and Republican Gov. Bill Lee enacted the law against drag shows in March. Many supporters of the law said drag performances in their hometowns had made it necessary to restrict them from taking place in public or where children could view them.

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Notably, the word “drag” doesn’t appear in the new law. Instead, the statute changed the definition of adult cabaret in Tennessee to mean “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.” Male or female impersonators are now classified as a form of adult cabaret, akin to strippers and topless, go-go or exotic dancers.

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The law banned adult cabaret performances on public property or anywhere minors might be present. Performers who break the law risk being charged with a misdemeanor, or a felony for a repeat offense.

The ACLU of Tennessee has previously said drag shows do not inherently fall under the law’s narrow definitions, which include extreme sexual or violent content without artistic value. But the ACLU and other advocates for LGBTQ+ rights fear that officials might use the law subjectively to censor drag artists.

Since the ruling affecting Shelby County, Lee has refused to weigh in on whether district attorneys should continue enforcing the law, saying he would defer to the attorney general.

The Blount County district attorney’s office did not answer a phone call seeking comment on the decision.

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