Supreme Court denies request to intervene in drag show ban at Texas university

West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas.
West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. | Wikimedia Commons/J. Nguyen~commonswiki/ GNU Free Documentation License/

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to issue an emergency injunction in a lawsuit against a Texas university for canceling an on-campus drag performance. 

In a one-sentence order last Friday, the high court refused to intervene in Spectrum WT v. Wendler to allow campus LGBT group Spectrum WT to hold a charity drag show on March 22 at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, about 10 miles south of Amarillo.

The nonpartisan activist group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which represents Spectrum WT, asked the Supreme Court to intervene after two lower court decisions. The group claims free speech rights were violated when President Walter Wendler canceled what he called a "derisive, divisive and demoralizing" drag show.

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FIRE expressed its disappointment with the court's rejection in a statement on social media.

"While FIRE is disappointed by today's denial of an emergency injunction, we'll keep fighting for our clients' First Amendment rights. The Fifth Circuit will hear oral arguments in the case next month. 

"The show is not over."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has aggressively sought prosecution against local establishments that may have violated a state ban on drag shows for minor audiences, said FIRE's attempt to "short circuit the ordinary appellate process" backfired.

"President Wendler's efforts to uphold decency and protect women from hostile and degrading caricatures, and to protect children from exposure to obscene conduct, are completely defensible," Paxton said in a statement

"I'm pleased that a unanimous SCOTUS rejected the organization's extraordinary attempt to force the University to host this activity."

In March 2023, Wendler cited his Christian faith when he said West Texas A&M would not host the drag event, which he said was advertised as an effort to raise money for a nonprofit organization, The Trevor Project.

After describing the group's stated goal of suicide prevention as a noble cause, Wendler wrote, "WT endeavors to treat all people equally. Drag shows are derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny, no matter the stated intent."

"Such conduct runs counter to the purpose of WT. A person or group should not attempt to elevate itself or a cause by mocking another person or group."

Wendler compared his opposition to the drag show to not supporting "blackface" performances on campus, calling such displays "wrong."

He concluded the letter by quoting Matthew 7:12 — "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" — as well as similar proverbs from Buddhism and Judaism. The president stated that he believes the WT community should live up to this universal standard of "law of reciprocity … in every known religion and society on the planet."

In response, FIRE filed its original lawsuit and sent a letter to Wendler stating it was "seriously concerned" by his decision as well as his stated "belief that '[b]eing created in God's image is the basis of Natural Law.'"

"As the president of a public university bound by the Constitution, your opinions on Natural Law are subordinate to your obligations under — as you dismissively put it — 'the law of the land,' that is, the First Amendment, which protects student expression regardless of whether you 'condone' it," the letter stated.

The letter compared drag shows to "other forms of theatrical performance" and stated that such performances are "expressive conduct shielded from government censorship." 

FIRE cited a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which, according to FIRE, "reflects the First Amendment's longstanding protection for expressive events some people nonetheless find offensive," including "blackface performances."

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