Media Contact

Gillian Branstetter, ACLU,
Breana Staten, ACLU of Tennessee,
Bill Shralow, Ballard Spahr,

October 6, 2023

Advocates File Lawsuit Challenging Murfreesboro Anti-LGBTQ+ Ordinance and Efforts to Prevent BoroPride 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – To protect the freedom of speech and expression of LGBTQ+ community members and drag performers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, ACLU, Ballard Spahr, and Burr Forman filed a lawsuit in federal court today against the city of Murfreesboro, on behalf of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), founder and host of the annual BoroPride Festival. The lawsuit challenges a new anti-drag city ordinance and a local policy denying all special event request permits by TEP. 

The lawsuit was filed after the Murfreesboro mayor and city manager engaged in a yearlong, concerted anti-LGBTQ+ campaign to chill TEP and Murfreesboro residents’ protected speech and expression, culminating in the city establishing an official policy prohibiting the issuance of permits to TEP; discriminatorily and unconstitutionally denying TEP’s request for a permit for 2023 BoroPride; and implementing a sweeping and vague ordinance designed to censor any LGBTQ+ speech or conduct within the Murfreesboro community or from TEP. This ordinance has already been utilized to ban multiple LGBTQ+ books from Murfreesboro public libraries. 

“BoroPride celebrates the growing and vibrant LGBTQ+ community in the Murfreesboro area,” said TEP executive director, Chris Sanders. “Being able to hold our events in public spaces on the same terms as any other group is the basic fairness that we seek.” 

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants are explicitly seeking to restrict protected speech and expression because they disagree with its content, its message and its messenger. The lawsuit further alleges that the ordinance is unconstitutionally broad and vague and discriminatorily chills the free speech rights of Murfreesboro residents, violating the First Amendment. The lawsuit also challenges the ordinance’s discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

“The government has no right to censor LGBTQ+ people and our expression,” said ACLU-TN legal director, Stella Yarbrough. “Restricting drag performances and censoring affirming LGBTQ+ messages are discriminatory actions and violate community members’ First Amendment rights.” 

“We stand with the plaintiff and the ACLU in challenging these blatantly unconstitutional restrictions on expression, as well as the city’s discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community,” said Michael P. Robotti, partner in Ballard Spahr’s Litigation Department. “The city is taking these actions against the Tennessee Equality Project and the BoroPride Festival simply because city leaders disagree with their pro-LGBTQ+ message – and that’s a violation of the law and plaintiff’s constitutional rights.” 

“Murfreesboro officials have engaged in a baseless, unconstitutional campaign to censor and restrict the lawful speech of BoroPride,” said Li Nowlin-Sohl, staff attorney for the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. “This festival and the countless like it around the country celebrate the freedom of self-expression and cultivate community, solidarity, and joy among LGBTQ people. We’re filing this claim on behalf of BoroPride to ensure all residents of Murfreesboro know they can’t be targeted by their local officials simply for disagreeing with them.” 

The plaintiff is asking the court to find Murfreesboro’s new anti-drag ordinance unconstitutional and to stop the city from enforcing its blanket denial of all future special event permits applied for by TEP.