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August 31, 2023

Lawsuit Filed in Response to District Attorney’s Plan to Enforce Unconstitutional Anti-Drag Law 

August 31, 2023

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Late last night, in an effort to protect the free speech rights of drag performers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and attorneys Brice Timmons, Melissa Stewart, Daniel Horwitz, Melissa Dix, and Justin Gilbert filed a lawsuit on behalf of Blount Pride and Christian artist and drag performer Flamy Grant. 

The lawsuit was filed in response to a letter sent by 5th Judicial District Attorney General Ryan K. Desmond to Blount Pride organizers and local officials asserting his intent to enforce the anti-drag law recently passed by the state legislature, despite a federal court finding the law is “an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech” earlier this year in a lawsuit filed by LGBTQ theatre company Friends of George’s. 

“Our goal with Blount Pride has always been simply to provide a safe place for LGBTQ people to connect, celebrate, and share resources,” said Blount Pride board president Ari Baker. “We’ve worked hard to create a supportive Pride celebration, but now we are worried that law enforcement wrongly thinks this anti-drag law applies to our event. We are filing this lawsuit to protect that space and our entertainers’ ability to perform. We appreciate community members’ support and we encourage families to attend and celebrate with us on Saturday.” 

Plaintiff Flamy Grant added, “Drag is an ancient art form, and I have seen how it can help build community, hold space, and connect people. I joined this lawsuit to ensure that I can continue performing in Tennessee, because I have seen how drag speaks to people who simply want to belong and be loved, making them feel safe and supported. That’s all I want my art to do.” 

Earlier this year, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee ruled in Friends of George’s, Inc. v. Mulroy that the anti-drag law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and amounts to a content-based and viewpoint-based restriction on speech impermissibly targeting drag performers. The court’s ruling was based on the text of the law and the law’s legislative record, not just on the facts existing in Shelby County, signaling that the law is unconstitutional no matter where in the state it is enforced. 

Today’s lawsuit alleges that the anti-drag law violates the First Amendment and that it is unconstitutionally broad and vague, chilling the free speech rights of Blount County residents. The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants are explicitly seeking to restrict or chill protected speech and expression because they disagree with its content, its message, and its messenger; and that the plaintiffs have a reasonable fear of enforcement from the law enforcement defendants. The plaintiffs’ requests include a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law, and a declaration that the law is unconstitutional. 

“Threatening to enforce this unconstitutional law amounts to a harmful attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life, which is simply unacceptable,” said ACLU-TN legal director Stella Yarbrough. “The court has made it abundantly clear that drag performance is constitutionally-protected expression under the First Amendment, regardless of where in the state it is performed.” 

Attorney Brice Timmons added, “We feel quite certain that this issue was settled by Judge Parker in the Friends of George’s case and are disappointed that District Attorney Desmond would ignore a federal court.” 

“District attorneys are supposed to uphold the Constitution, not violate it,” said Horwitz Law, PLLC attorney Daniel A. Horwitz.

Blount Pride will take place on Saturday, September 2 from 1 – 8 p.m. ET at the Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville College, 502 E. Lamar Alexander Parkway in Maryville. At this time, Blount Pride will proceed as scheduled. However, due to the circumstances, there are concerns that things might change; any updates regarding the event will be posted on the Blount Pride website and social media.