Federal Judge: Canceled West Texas A&M Drag Show Doesn’t Violate First Amendment

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled that WTAMU President Walter Wendler is entitled to qualified immunity and is protected from liability.
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Published on September 26, 2023
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  • U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled that WTAMU President Walter Wendler has qualified immunity against a suit filed by students over a canceled campus drag show.
  • In March, Wendler canceled the student-organized drag event for charity in an email that cited his personal beliefs about the performances.
  • Students objected to the cancellation, saying it violated their First Amendment rights.

A federal judge in Texas has ruled that West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) President Walter Wendler did not violate the First Amendment when he canceled a student-organized drag show in March.

In the District Court opinion, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk wrote that Wendler has qualified immunity, protecting him from individual liability when acting in his official capacity as university president when his actions could reasonably have been believed to be legal.

There is no dispute that President Wendler's action was within the scope of his discretionary authority, Kacsmaryk wrote. Thus, Plaintiffs must demonstrate that President Wendler violated their clearly established rights ... At this (motion-to-dismiss) phase, Plaintiffs fall short.

Kacsmaryk also argued that drag shows fall under the category of sexualized content and that schools are allowed to restrict vulgar and lewd conduct that undermines the school's basic education mission.

This court cannot so easily ignore binding Supreme Court precedent holding that sexualized conduct is more regulable under various First Amendment doctrines — especially when children are in the audience, the opinion read.

The March 31 drag show was organized by students at the Canyon, Texas, university to support the Trevor Project, an advocacy group focused on suicide prevention efforts of LGBTQ+ youths.

But Wendler canceled the event March 21 via a 740-word email to students and faculty in which he called drag performances derisive, divisive and demoralizing.

Later that month, WTAMU's student-run LGBTQ+ organization Spectrum WT, the group's president Barrett Bright, and the group's vice president Lauren Stovall filed a lawsuit against Wendler, saying he violated their First Amendment rights.

Our Constitution prohibits public officials, including public university presidents, from silencing Americans because a public official dislikes certain points of view, the lawsuit read.

Whether students gather on campus to study the Bible, host a political talk, or put on a drag show for charity, the First Amendment prohibits public university officials from suppressing the students' expression simply because the administrator (or anyone else) finds the message offensive.

The students are being represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment advocacy group.

FIRE Senior Attorney JT Morris said in a statement that the organization strongly disagrees with the court's approach to First Amendment analysis and its conclusions.

We will appeal, and our fight for the expressive rights of these brave college students will continue, he said.