Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner temporarily blocked a new state law Thursday from going into effect that would have criminalized sexually-oriented performances in front of children or effectively banned some public drag shows.
LGBTQ+ groups sued the Texas attorney general’s office, hoping to stop authorities from enforcing Senate Bill 12, which was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June and was scheduled like most new laws to go into effect Friday.
In a two-day hearing earlier this week in Houston, a drag performer and entertainment businesses said Texas lawmakers’ effort to regulate these shows was an unconstitutional attempt to stifle their freedom of expression. Though Hittner did not issue a final order on Thursday, he found the plaintiffs’ argument compelling.
“Based on evidence and testimony presented at the hearing, the court finds there is substantial likelihood that SB 12 as drafted violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution under one or more of the legal theories put forward by the plaintiffs,” Hittner wrote in the temporary restraining order.
Hittner said allowing the law to take effect would likely cause “irreparable harm” to the plaintiffs. He issued the restraining order to maintain the status quo of the legal landscape while preparing a final decision — the restraining order does not guarantee a permanent injunction. He said his order could come two to four weeks after the hearing.
Hittner heard testimony earlier this week from LGBTQ+ groups, businesses and a performer, which were plaintiffs in one of two lawsuits against SB 12. They argued the law trampled on their First Amendment rights to perform and organize drag shows. They described drag as a healing, expressive and political form of performance art with historical connections to LGBTQ+ people.
“If allowed to take effect, SB 12 will make our state less free, less fair, and less welcoming for every artist and performer,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Texas Attorney Brian Klosterboer in a statement following the judge’s decision. “This temporary order is a much-needed reprieve for all Texans, especially our LGBTQIA+ and transgender community, who have been relentlessly targeted by our state legislature.”
Defending the law, attorneys with the Texas attorney general’s office said SB 12 was narrowly tailored to protect children from sexually-explicit performances. The new law did not explicitly ban drag shows, lawyers for the state said, and these performances should not be considered expressive or receive First Amendment protections.
However, shortly after signing the law, Abbott shared a story on social media about SB 12’s passage and declared he had banned drag performances in public.
“The people of Texas were appalled to learn of an increasing trend of obscene, sexually explicit so-called ‘drag’ performances being marketed to families with children,” said Paige Willey, the director of communications for the attorney general’s office. “The Office of the Attorney General will pursue all legal remedies possible to aggressively defend SB 12, the state law that regulates such performances to protect children and uphold public decency.”
Under the new law, business owners would have had to face a $10,000 fine for hosting sexually explicit performances in which someone is nude or appeals to the “prurient interest in sex.” Performers caught violating the proposed restriction could be slapped with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Texas is one of six states that have passed a bill restricting “adult” or drag performances, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that tracks legislation related to LGBTQ+ issues.
Legal challenges to similar legislation in Florida, Montana and Tennessee have successfully blocked these laws from going into effect. In June, a federal judge in Tennessee, appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled the law is unconstitutional in its effort to suppress First Amendment-protected speech.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.