In a landmark ruling that underscores the importance of free speech, a federal judge has thrown a wrench into Florida’s plans to enforce a ban on drag show performances in venues where children might be present. The move has been celebrated as a big win for the LGBTQ+ community and First Amendment rights in general.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell extended an earlier order on Wednesday, blocking the enforcement of the ban statewide. This decision prevents Florida officials from clamping down on venues that host drag shows until the outcome of a lawsuit arguing the ban is unconstitutional.
Earlier this year, Governor Ron DeSantis approved the ban, but it was put on hold by Judge Presnell in June after Orlando-based restaurant, Hamburger Mary’s, brought a lawsuit against it. Regularly hosting drag shows, Hamburger Mary’s argued that the ban was too sweeping and posed a threat to the freedom of speech.
The restaurant’s lawsuit asserts that the law “prohibits protected speech based on the identity of the speaker,” and unfairly targets drag shows, which have become an integral part of mainstream culture. On a Facebook post back in May, the eatery slammed the ban as part of a wider attack by DeSantis on the LGBTQ+ community. They argued the bill was more about oppression than protecting children.
Judge Presnell’s decision builds upon the arguments put forward by Hamburger Mary’s about the law’s ambiguity. He rejected the idea that freedom of speech should be limited because some might find performances objectionable, obscene, or inappropriate for children. Instead, he pointed out that existing laws against obscenity provide enough means to protect children from any constitutionally unprotected exhibitions or shows.
The law, which prevented minors from attending drag shows with alleged “lewd” performances, was written so broadly that even venues hosting non-sexual drag shows would have been impacted.
Judge Presnell criticized the state’s reasons for enforcing the law, pointing out the contradictions with other state laws. In particular, he called out the irony of the state’s claim that lewd shows should never be seen by children while allowing minors to view R-rated films at cinemas if accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Despite the state wanting Judge Presnell’s injunction to only apply to Hamburger Mary’s, he took a stand for all venues across Florida looking to host drag shows. He dismissed the state’s arguments that the wider injunction would harm residents and the state itself under the pretense of child protection.
Presnell reiterated that more significant legal harm would occur if the First Amendment rights of people were violated by letting the law stand while waiting for the lawsuit’s resolution. He acknowledged that Hamburger Mary’s wasn’t the only party suffering because of the law, noting its chilling effect on everyone it could affect.
In his words, “the balance of harms weighs heavily in favor of protecting Floridians from this unconstitutional statute.” He concluded, “Protecting the right to freedom of speech is the epitome of acting in the public interest,” and because the law is “facially unconstitutional,” the injunction must protect all Floridians.
This ruling is a significant blow to the state’s attempts to restrict drag shows, and a victory for free expression, diversity, and the spirit of the First Amendment.