Friday, June 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Texas university president hit with First Amendment lawsuit for canceling drag show

An LGBTQ student group says it planned to put on an alcohol-free, PG-13 drag show to raise money for suicide prevention but the university president shut it down.

(CN) — A West Texas A&M University student group sued the school’s Christian president on Friday for forbidding their charity drag show because he believes it would discriminate against women.

LGBTQ students at the university in Canyon, a small town 20 miles south of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, formed Spectrum WT in 2009 to provide a safe space for themselves and their allies and promote diversity on campus and the surrounding community, according to the lawsuit.

Spectrum WT, its president Barrett Bright and vice-president Lauren Stovall sued Walter Wendler, president of West Texas A&M University, John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M University System, and the system’s board of regents, in Amarillo federal court.

The group says it started planning a drag show in November to raise money for The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that provides suicide prevention services for LGBTQ youth.

It dubbed the show “A Fool’s Drag Race” because it planned to hold it on April Fool’s Day but rescheduled to March 31 as another April 1 event had already been booked for Legacy Hall, a 700-seat venue within the university’s student center.

Spectrum WT says it notified the university in January about its intent to put on the show when it applied to use Legacy Hall, and the school’s administration and staff helped them plan it and gave their unreserved support.

A staff director of the student center even told Bright, Spectrum WT’s president, in a Feb. 21 email, “We want to help ensure you have a great event.”

Spectrum WT assured campus officials its show would be “PG-13,” alcohol-free and barred to minors unless they were accompanied by a parent, and said it had warned performers not to engage in lewd conduct or use music with profanity.

Satisfied with the group's progress, student center staff issued a tentative confirmation for the event on Feb. 27, giving Spectrum WT permission to advertise for it, the lawsuit states.

A week later, university staff helped Spectrum WT create flyers for the event.

A flyer for a drag show planned by Spectrum WT, an LGBTQ student group at West Texas A&M University. (source: Spectrum WT's lawsuit)

Spectrum WT says in mid-March it submitted a list of planned songs to the student center’s director and was preparing a list of performers, steps needed for final approval of the event.

But on March 20, Wendler called off the show in an email to all the university’s more than 9,500 students with the subject line “A Harmless Drag Show? No Such Thing”.

Comparing drag shows to blackface performances, Wendler wrote “drag shows stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood.”

“The WT community should live by the Golden Rule,” he added.  “As a Christian, I personally learned this in the book of Matthew. “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Emphasis in original.)

Wendler admitted, however, his decision may not hold up in court. “I will not appear to condone the diminishment of any group … even when the law of the land appears to require it,” he wrote.

The next day, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, representing Spectrum WT and the group’s leaders, sent Wendler a letter claiming his conduct had violated the First Amendment and asking him to reinstate the event.

“The same day, President Wendler acknowledged the letter, copying the general counsel for the Texas A&M University System. But neither President Wendler, West Texas A&M, nor the Texas A&M University System responded substantively to FIRE’s letter,” the complaint states.

Spectrum WT says its members are still planning to put on the show and are looking into renting a venue at an Amarillo city park for $1,200 or the Amarillo Convention Center for $1,000.

But it contends as a recognized West Texas A&M University student organization it should be able to use campus facilities like all other student groups.

“Whether students gather on campus to study the Bible, host a political talk, or put on a drag show for charity, the First Amendment prohibits public university officials from suppressing the students’ expression simply because the administrator (or anyone else) finds the message offensive,” the complaint states. (Parentheses in original.)

Alleging First Amendment freedom of speech violations for viewpoint discrimination and exclusion from a public forum, Spectrum WT seeks an injunction to stop the defendants from preventing their show from happening at Legacy Hall on March 31.

The plaintiffs also sued Wendler in his individual capacity for retaliatory infringement of freedom of speech and are seeking punitive, compensatory and nominal damages from him.

While state sovereignty bars plaintiffs from obtaining money damages against state officials, including university presidents, when sued in their official capacities, they can be won when suing them in their individual capacities.

Drag shows have a long history going back to theatrical performances in the days of Shakespeare, according to lawsuit.

But they are now a front line in the nation’s culture wars. Lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced bills to restrict them.

In Texas, four proposed bills would restrain drag shows, including by redefining any place that hosts a drag show as a “sexually oriented business.”

Spectrum WT and its officers are represented by JT Morris of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, a Washington nonprofit.

The university declined to comment.

Categories:Civil Rights, Education, Entertainment, Regional

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.