The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

FIRE Sues West Texas A&M Over Its Blocking of Student Group's Drag Show


From the brief in support of motion for TRO in Spectrum WT v. Wendler (N.D. Tex.), filed Friday (see the brief for more factual details, and some further analysis); the argument seems correct to me:


West Texas A&M University's President, Defendant Walter Wendler, has declared that he will not obey "the law of the land." Instead, he insists on banning a recognized student group's event from campus simply because he dislikes the event's entirely lawful message. By moving for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, Plaintiffs ask this Court to put a swift end to Wendler's disdain for the First Amendment and prevent further irreparable harm to Plaintiffs' constitutional freedoms.

On March 20, 2023, President Wendler announced to the campus community that he is forbidding Plaintiff Spectrum WT from holding its scheduled PG-13 charity drag show because he disagrees with the show's viewpoint. Making matters worse, President Wendler has all but confessed that he is knowingly violating 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." (Dkt. 1, Verified Compl., Ex. A.) That is textbook viewpoint discrimination. And it violates the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has concluded that even controversial live theater is protected First Amendment expression. Se. Promotions, Ltd. v. Conrad, 420 U.S. 546, 557–58 (1975). If officials in Tennessee could not exclude a group from presenting the provocative play Hair in a public theatre because they disagreed with Hair's message, then surely President Wendler and the other Defendants cannot exclude students wanting to put on a PG-13 charity drag show in a campus space open to student groups for expressive activities, simply because the show does not match Wendler's worldview. Id.

Indeed, the Constitution's bar against viewpoint discrimination is vital to preserving freedom of speech at public colleges and universities. "[N]o matter how offensive to good taste" some may find it, expression "on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of 'conventions of decency.'" Papish v. Bd. of Curators of the Univ. of Mo., 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973). So, whether students gather on campus to support a political candidate, talk about the Bible, or put on a drag show, public college administrators cannot censor student expression just because they find it disagreeable or offensive.

Yet that is exactly what President Wendler is doing by refusing to let the show go on. The result is ongoing irreparable harm to Spectrum WT and its student officers, Plaintiffs Barrett Bright and Lauren Stovall. Above all, the eleventh-hour cancelation of their March 31 charity drag show—and President Wendler's moratorium on campus drag shows altogether—are depriving Spectrum WT's members of their First Amendment rights, which is always an irreparable injury. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976). What's more, Spectrum WT carefully followed West Texas A&M's process for getting event approval—with the full backing of campus staff—only for Wendler to pull the rug out at the last minute. If Spectrum WT cannot hold its March 31 event on campus, or similar events it plans to hold in the future, it will suffer significant injury to its mission of advocating for the LGBTQ+ community at West Texas A&M….

[I.] Plaintiffs Are Substantially Likely to Succeed on the Merits Against the University's Brazen Censorship of Protected Expression.

"The First Amendment is not an art critic," and drag shows, like other forms of theatrical performance, are expressive conduct that the First Amendment prohibits President Wendler from censoring. Norma Kristie, Inc. v. City of Okla. City, 572 F. Supp. 88, 91 (W.D. Okla. 1983) (holding drag shows are protected First Amendment expression).

The freedom of expression enshrined in the First Amendment "does not end at the spoken or written word." Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 404 (1989). Whatever the mode of expression, the First Amendment protects conduct "inten[ded] to convey a particularized message," (id. at 404, 406), and it prohibits public university officials from suppressing student expression simply because they disagree with its viewpoint or find the message offensive. Papish, 410 U.S. at 670. If anything, whether speech is protected by the First Amendment is a legal, not moral, analysis. Dodds v. Childers, 933 F.2d 271, 273 (5th Cir. 1991). President Wendler imposing his morals at the expense of free expression violates the First Amendment.

The First Amendment also bars public university officials from denying student groups access to campus public forums because of the content or viewpoint of a group's message. Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 267–70 (1981); Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819, 828–29 (1995). And messaging within a broader genre—such as art, theater, and dancing—is also protected even if it does not convey a "narrow, succinctly articulable message." Hurley v. Irish-Am. Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Grp., 515 U.S. 557, 569 (1995). Indeed, "[e]ven crude street skits come within the First Amendment's reach." Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason Univ., 993 F.2d 386, 390 (4th Cir. 1993) (fraternity "ugly woman contest" is protected expression). See also Berger v. Battaglia, 779 F.2d 992, 999 (4th Cir. 1985) (holding a blackface performance is protected First Amendment expression, even when it is "sheer entertainment" without a political message).

Under core First Amendment principles, Defendants' ongoing suppression of a peaceful charity drag show constitutes unlawful viewpoint and content discrimination. The Court should stop the ongoing injury to Plaintiffs' First Amendment freedoms and restore constitutional order on West Texas A&M's campus by issuing a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

[A.] President Wendler's Censorship of a Drag Show Based on Personal Disagreements with the Expression's Message Is Textbook Viewpoint Discrimination.

President Wendler's abuse of his powers to quash a PG-13 charity drag show because he disagrees with the show's message—real or perceived—violates the First Amendment. It is "axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys." Rosenberger, 515 U.S. at 828. "Viewpoint discrimination is censorship in its purest form," and government action "that discriminates among viewpoints threatens the continued vitality of free speech." Bible Believers v. Wayne Cnty., Mich., 805 F.3d 228, 248 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc) (cleaned up). Indeed, government officials like college administrators are "inherently" incapable of making "principled distinctions" between offensive and inoffensive speech, and the state has "no right to cleanse" public expression such that it is "palatable to the most squeamish among us." Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1971).

To that end, "state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment." Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972). And that includes the First Amendment prohibition on viewpoint discrimination. Rosenberger, 515 U.S. at 835–36 (invalidating college's denial of funding to Christian student newspaper). True, courts often employ "forum analysis" to determine when public university administrators "in regulating property in [their] charge, may place limitations on speech." Christian Legal Soc'y Chapter of the Univ. of Cali, Hastings Coll. of Law v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661, 679 (2010). But regardless of the forum's classification, "any access barrier … must be viewpoint neutral." Id. (citing Rosenberger, 515 U.S. at 829).

By picking and choosing which performances fit his moral tastes, President Wendler is engaging in viewpoint discrimination. Indeed, "the essence of viewpoint discrimination" is "the Government's disapproval of … messages it finds offensive." Iancu v. Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. 2294, 2299 (2019) (quoting Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. 218, 248–49 (2017) (Kennedy, J., concurring)). And as President Wendler proclaims, he personally finds that "drag shows are derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny, no matter the stated intent." (Verif. Compl., Ex. A.)

President Wendler's stance mirrors that of the censorial officials in Southeastern Promotions. 420 U.S. 546. There, a group petitioned to use a city- operated municipal auditorium to present the rock musical "Hair." Id. at 547. The auditorium directors denied the application, reasoning that allowing the play "was not in the best interest of the community" and the board would only "allow those productions which are clean and healthful and culturally uplifting, or words to that effect." Id. at 549. The Supreme Court struck down the directors' censorship as an unconstitutional prior restraint. To the same end, this Court should put a stop to Defendants' ongoing viewpoint-based censorship of Plaintiffs' PG-13 charity drag show.

The Fourth Circuit's decision in Iota Xi also shows why the Court should enjoin Defendants' censorship. 993 F.2d 386. There, George Mason University imposed sanctions on a fraternity for hosting an "ugly woman contest" riddled with "racist and sexist" overtones, including contestants "dressed as caricatures of different types of women[]" (i.e., in drag). Id. at 387–88. George Mason's administrators cited many of the same concerns President Wendler relies on—that the event was degrading, amounted to harassment, and conflicted with the institution's mission. Id. at 388; Verif. Compl., Ex. A.

The Fourth Circuit had no trouble brushing aside the administrators' excuses. As the court explained, "First Amendment principles governing live entertainment are relatively clear: short of obscenity, it is generally protected." Iota Xi, 993 F.2d at

389 (collecting cases). The court likewise held the fraternity's drag skit was constitutionally protected, since it intended to convey a message, both through the mode of dress and use of a theatrical medium. Id. at 392. The court held GMU engaged in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination by sanctioning the fraternity as the sanction arose from the fact that "the 'ugly woman contest' … ran counter to the views the University sought to communicate to its students and the community." Id. at 393.

Even if President Wendler's opinion were shared by all but the students here, he cannot justify stifling Plaintiffs' expression on moral grounds. That argument lost in Southeastern Promotions. It lost in Iota Xi. And it must lose here. See also Gay Student Servs. v. Tex. A & M Univ., 737 F.2d 1317, 1322–27 (5th Cir. 1984) (holding Texas A&M violated the First Amendment by refusing to recognize a gay student organization when the official responsible for the denial justified the decision "based on his perception that the organization would attempt to convey ideas" he found morally repugnant).

This Court should refuse Wendler's viewpoint-driven reasons for violating the First Amendment, grant Plaintiffs' motion, and put a stop to Wendler and the other Defendants' ongoing censorship of Plaintiffs' protected expression.

  1. Excluding Plaintiffs' Drag Show from Campus Public Forums Violates the First Amendment.

President Wendler's denial of use of a campus public forum to Plaintiffs also violates the First Amendment, to their ongoing injury. Legacy Hall is a designated public forum for First Amendment purposes. West Texas A&M opens its facilities, like Legacy Hall, to West Texas A&M students and student organizations for exactly these expressive purposes: theatrical performances before a willing audience, music, dancing, and banter. (Verif. Compl. ¶¶ 31–32, 41–42.) Thus, because "the University has created a forum generally open for use by student groups," "the University must therefore satisfy the standard of review appropriate to content-based exclusions." Widmar, 454 U.S. at 270. See also Pro-Life Cougars v. Univ. of Houston, 259 F. Supp. 2d 575, 582 (S.D. Tex. 2003) ("When as here a University by policy and practice opens up an area for indiscriminate use … by some segment of the public, such as student organizations, such area may be deemed to be a designated public forum").

Under the First Amendment, "a government … has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content" unless it satisfies strict scrutiny. Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., 576 U.S. 155, 163 (2015) (cleaned up). To meet that high bar here, Defendants "must show that [their] regulation is necessary to serve a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly drawn to achieve that end." Widmar, 454 U.S. at 270. They cannot meet that burden. See United States v. Playboy Ent. Grp., Inc., 529 U.S. 803, 816 (2000) ("When the Government restricts speech, the Government bears the burden of proving the constitutionality of its actions").

For starters, a ban on drag shows is content-based (if not outright viewpoint- based, as shown above). It singles out a particular type of expression—drag—for differential treatment. That is textbook content discrimination. Reed, 576 U.S. at 169 (content discrimination exists when the government "singles out a specific subject matter for differential treatment").

Defendants' content-based ban of campus drag shows—including canceling Plaintiffs' March 31 show—fails strict scrutiny. And Widmar shows why. In Widmar, the University of Missouri at Kansas City denied an evangelical Christian student group the use of university facilities otherwise "generally available for … registered student groups." Id. at 264–65. The Supreme Court explained that such restrictions, which single out a particular subject for differential treatment, are subject to "the most exacting scrutiny." Id. at 276. The Court held that the university unlawfully "discriminated against student groups and speakers based on their desire to use a generally open forum to engage in" protected expression and that the university's stated goal, "achieving greater separation of church and State," was not sufficiently "'compelling' to justify content-based discrimination against respondents' religious speech." Id. at 269, 278.

Here, advancing President Wendler's belief that drag shows promote "misogyny" is not a compelling state interest. (Verif. Compl. Ex. A.) As a threshold matter, banning drag shows does not prevent tangible harm to women. Any women (or men) who might take offense from a drag show can simply opt to not attend. Likewise, those who agree with President Wendler's estimation of the value of the students' expression can exercise a time-honored means of "effectively avoid[ing] further bombardment of their sensibilities simply by averting their eyes." Cohen, 403

U.S. at 21.

Rather, President Wendler, like the administrators in Iota Xi, seeks to suppress Plaintiffs' speech "because it r[uns] counter to the views the University s[eeks] to communicate to its students and the community." 993 F.2d at 393. That is not redressing a harm. It is big-brother government insisting it "knows what's best" for women and that it can silence dissenting expression. But "[t]he state may not ordain preferred viewpoints [about women and femininity] in this way. The Constitution forbids the state to declare one perspective right and silence opponents." Am. Booksellers Ass'n v. Hudnut, 771 F.2d 323, 325 (7th Cir. 1985).

Nor is Defendants' ban on drag shows narrowly tailored or the least restrictive means of furthering their goals. See Playboy Ent. Grp., 529 U.S. at 813 (content regulation permissible only if the government "chooses the least restrictive means to further the articulated interest") (cleaned up). Neither President Wendler nor the other Defendants have banned any other type of expression from campus which might tend to disparage or demean women. And a content-based law is not narrowly tailored if it leaves untouched a significant amount of expression causing the same problem. Reed, 576 U.S. at 172. Plus, the government's objection to a speaker's message is not even a legitimate government interest, let alone a compelling one.

America's college campuses are no stranger to censorship, which is often visited upon students and faculty who find themselves among the minority viewpoint—including, in many cases, conservative and religious groups. See, e.g., Widmar, 454 U.S. at 265; Rosenberger, 515 U.S. at 830. From Central Washington University threatening to defund the College Republicans for protected speech, to Iowa State University threatening to punish the College Republicans for protected speech, to pro-life groups having to fight for recognition at the University of Arizona, censorship of expression on public campuses continues to fester. But students' expressive rights should not, and do not, turn on the whims of college administrators. The First Amendment does not play favorites.

President Wendler's censorship singles out one type of artistic expression out of many—drag shows—for differential treatment and censorship simply because he dislikes the message he perceives. It is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination for the reasons explained. And putting aside President Wendler's confessed motives, the ban is unlawful content discrimination. A temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction are necessary to secure Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights….