‘Orwellian conformity’: Texas university sued for canceling a charity drag show

Daily Caller News Foundation

  • Spectrum WT, an LGBTQ student organization at West Texas A&M University, sued university officials Friday morning after President Walter Wendler canceled its charity drag show scheduled for March 31.
  • Wendler canceled the event because he believes that drag shows mock women, but the students allege that he violated their First Amendment rights.
  • “If drag shows are not your cup of tea, then don’t go,” Adam Steinbaugh, FIRE attorney, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

A Texas student organization sued West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) officials Friday morning after a charity drag show was canceled, the court document reads.

Spectrum WT, the LGBTQ+ student organization at WTAMU, and two of its student leaders accused President Walter Wendler of violating their First Amendment rights when he canceled their scheduled drag show earlier this week for being a mockery to women, according to the complaint. The students are represented by free speech watchdog Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“If drag shows are not your cup of tea, then don’t go,” Adam Steinbaugh, FIRE attorney, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “But government officials, like university presidents, can’t shut down student expression just because they find it offensive. The First Amendment right that protects the students here is the same one that protects the rights of students to post flyers on campus condemning communisminvite conservative campus speakers, or pass out copies of the U.S. Constitution.”

Wendler appeared to know that his decision to cancel the drag show could violate the First Amendment, writing in a letterto the campus community that he “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.”

Spectrum WT “fears President Wendler will again silence protected speech that he disagrees with or finds offensive” for future events it hosts on campus, according to the complaint. The group alleges that it will “suffer irreparable harm” without court intervention. 

“President Wendler isn’t just violating the First Amendment, he’s also violating Texas education law,” JT Morris, FIRE senior attorney, said in the press release. “Public colleges and universities must be beacons of free expression, not Orwellian conformity centers.”

The students seek injunctive relief preventing university officials from interfering with the drag show, which was scheduled for March 31, or future events, according to the complaint. They also request a declaratory judgement that Wendler’s decision to cancel the event violated the First Amendment.

“President Wendler’s edict canceling the student group’s charity drag show is textbook viewpoint discrimination,” the complaint reads. “Of course, as a private citizen, President Wendler enjoys the First Amendment right to criticize expression he finds offensive, distasteful, or immoral. But as a public official, he cannot bar Spectrum WT and its members from exercising their First Amendment rights merely because he believes his personal opinions override the Constitution. They don’t.”

The drag show was organized to raise money for The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth. The show was planned to be PG-13, according to the statement, but Wendler lamented in his decision that it is not possible to host a “harmless drag show.”

“Does a drag show preserve a single thread of human dignity? I think not,” Wendler wrote. “As a performance exaggerating aspects of womanhood (sexuality, femininity, gender), drag shows stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood. Any event which diminishes an individual or group through such representation is wrong.”

Wendler would also not support “blackface performances” because “it is wrong,” and equated drag performances to a “slapstick sideshow that erodes the worth of women,” according to his letter. He advised the students to send money to The Trevor Project without holding the show.

“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,” Spectrum WT President Bear Bright said, according to FIRE’s press release. “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.”

Kelly Polden, WTAMU assistant vice president for the office of communication and marketing, told the DCNF the university cannot “comment due to litigation.”

Spectrum WT did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

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