A federal judge in Tennessee on Friday temporarily halted the state’s new law that criminalizes some drag performances, hours before it was set to take effect.
Judge Thomas Parker cited constitutional protections of freedom of speech in issuing a temporary restraining order.
“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” Parker wrote.
“The Court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this Statute, it missed the mark,” he wrote.
Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed the novel bill into law March 2. It was set to effect Saturday.
The first-of-its-kind law bans “adult cabaret entertainment” on public property or in locations where it could be viewed by a minor.
The law has sometimes been referred to as a drag ban.
Friends of George’s, Inc., which is an LGBTQ theater group based in Memphis, sued over the law and called it unconstitutional. Its next show begins performances April 14.
“This law threatens to force a theatre troupe into a nightclub, because Tennessee legislators believe they have the right to make their own opinions about drag into law,” the theater group argued in a motion for the restraining order. “Plaintiff’s other option is to proceed as planned, knowing that the Friends of George’s drag performers could face criminal — even felony — charges.”
The group also argued that if a drag queen and Tennessee Titans cheerleader danced in the presence of children, only the drag performer would be breaking the law.
“Thus, the prohibited speech is defined by the identity of the drag performer — and the message he conveys,” lawyers for the group wrote, adding that violates the First Amendment.
Supporters say the law safeguards children against exposure to inappropriate entertainment.
One of the bill’s Republican lead sponsors, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, said when it passed that measure “gives confidence to parents that they can take their kids to a public or private show and will not be blindsided by a sexualized performance.”
Under the law, a first offense is a misdemeanor and a second is a felony.
The state attorney general’s office, as well as a lawyer from the office listed as representing Lee and Tennessee in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday night.
Friends of George’s tweeted that the restraining order was the first step in an ongoing battle.
“We won because this is a bad law,” Mark Campbell, president of the board of directors of Friends of George’s, said in a statement. He said the group looks forward to its day in court.