Drag shows involving children have become a hot-button political and legal controversy. But when it’s just adults involved, there’s no problem, right?
Nope. At least, not at one Texas university. West Texas A&M University is facing a lawsuit after its president, Walter V. Wendler, canceled a student group’s drag show event that was planned as a fundraiser for suicide prevention.
Wendler justified the cancellation in a public statement by arguing that drag is offensive and demeaning toward women and violated his personal religious beliefs. He did so while simultaneously seeming to acknowledge that his action ran afoul of the law, as West Texas A&M is a public college and therefore bound by the First Amendment. He wrote, “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.”
Hence the lawsuit. It was filed on Friday by the LGBT student group, Spectrum WT, which is being represented by the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).
“President Wendler has made it clear to us that he knows what his legal obligations are, but he chose to ignore them, and we are thankful to FIRE for taking up our case to protect our First Amendment rights,” said Spectrum WT President Bear Bright. “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.”
BREAKING: FIRE just sued West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler for violating college students’ First Amendment right to hold a charity drag show on campus. https://t.co/msuGKvrLbC pic.twitter.com/nlXu98QmXt
— FIRE (@TheFIREorg) March 24, 2023
FIRE’s attorneys are confident that their lawsuit will succeed in court.
“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh said. “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.”
“President Wendler isn’t just violating the First Amendment, he’s also violating Texas education law,” FIRE senior attorney JT Morris added. “Public colleges and universities must be beacons of free expression, not Orwellian conformity centers.”
As a matter of law and free speech, FIRE and Spectrum WT are clearly in the right. Whether one agrees with Wendler’s criticisms of drag is actually immaterial. (Although I’ll note his view of it is highly debatable.) There is no exception for free speech and the First Amendment just because you really don’t like something or it really offends you. And even conservatives who personally dislike drag should stand up for the rights of students to engage in expressive acts they dislike.
Think about it. If campus free speech goes out the window when administrators subjectively deem something offensive, how is that going to work out for conservative speakers and student groups? (Hint: pretty terribly).
It’s easy to support freedom for the things you like and the people you agree with. But principles, integrity, and even practical self-interest all require you to defend the rights of others to have the same freedom you want for yourself.
Right now, West Texas A&M is failing that basic test. And in that, it’s failing its students.