By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal judge has ruled that Tennessee’s law restricting drag performances in public or where children were present was unconstitutional, striking a blow to efforts in U.S. states to regulate LGBTQ conduct.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee in February had signed the bill passed by the state’s assembly that aimed to restrict drag performances, putting the state at the forefront of a Republican-led effort to limit drag in at least 15 states in recent months.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, an appointee of former Republican President Donald Trump, ruled late on Friday that the law was “both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.” The First Amendment to the Constitution commands that laws infringing on freedom of speech must be narrow and well defined, Parker said in the 70-page ruling.
“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,” Parker said in the ruling.
Under the law, offenders could face fines and up to a year in prison and repeat offenders could have faced prison sentences of up to six years.
Ahead of the 2024 elections, Republican lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 500 bills this year regulating the conduct of gay and transgender people, ranging from what can be taught in schools to bathroom use and medical care. At least 48 of those have passed, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group.
Parker had temporarily blocked the law on March 31, just before it was set to go into effect, siding with Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based LGBTQ theater group that filed suit against the state.
GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, praised Parker’s decision. “This ruling is a turning point and we will not go back,” GLAAD said in a release.
“Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is on notice that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward,” the group said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)
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