A student LGBTQ group has sued West Texas A&M University for canceling a charity drag show Monday, arguing the Canyon public campus violated their First Amendment rights.
Filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, the lawsuit accuses WTAMU President Walter Wendler of “openly defying the Constitution” and points out that the First Amendment prevents public universities from silencing unpopular self-expression.
The suit seeks a jury trial to convict Mr. Wendler, other WTAMU officials and the Texas A&M University System of viewpoint discrimination against the students’ civil rights. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order letting the show proceed.
“In a published edict, President Wendler barred a recognized student group, Spectrum WT, from exercising its clear First Amendment right to put on a PG-13 charity drag show at a campus event hall with the aim of raising funds for LGBTQ+ suicide prevention,” the complaint states.
The complaint adds, quoting from the president’s campuswide email canceling the show: “In his edict, President Wendler confessed he is censoring Spectrum WT based on his personal views, and unabashedly admitted that doing so violates the Constitution: ‘A harmless drag show? Not possible. I will not appear to condone the diminishment of any group at the expense of impertinent gestures toward another group for any reason, even when the law of the land appears to require it.’”
Citing his religious beliefs, Mr. Wendler went on to call drag shows “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny,” according to court papers.
The Texas A&M University System, to which WTAMU belongs, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Attorneys from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a Philadelphia free speech advocacy group, are representing two LGBTQ student leaders from Spectrum WT in the case.
“Hopefully, this lawsuit will not just help us, the LGBTQ+ students here at WTAMU, protect our rights, but also help protect students’ rights across the U.S.,” said Spectrum WT President Barrett Bright.
The lawsuit comes amid a growing national backlash against drag shows, which critics say sexualize young children and demean women.
Drag events advertising themselves as “all ages” or “family friendly” sparked 141 protests in 47 states last year, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation reported in December.
Lawmakers in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, Tennessee and Texas have filed or discussed legislation to restrict drag shows.
Several Texas legislators have proposed a drag tax that would reclassify any establishment hosting the performances as a sexually oriented business.
That classification, which levies a tax on every customer who enters an establishment, currently applies only to adult entertainment venues.
Friday’s lawsuit says WTAMU violated a 2019 Texas campus free speech law that received bipartisan support from state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
That law says a university “may not take action against a student organization or deny the organization any benefit” based on “any expressive activities of the organization.”
“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” said Adam Steinbaugh, a FIRE attorney representing the WTAMU students. “The First Amendment protects student speech, whether it’s gathering on campus to study the Bible, hosting an acid-tongued political speaker or putting on a charity drag show.”