Tennessee Law Shielding Kids From Sexually Explicit Performances Ruled ‘Unconstitutional’
Bill Lee, governor of Tennessee, listens during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, July 10, 2021. The three-day conference is titled "America UnCanceled."
Photographer: Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

A federal judge has ruled Friday that a Tennessee law intended to shield children from sexually explicit performances is unconstitutional. 

U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker said a law that blocked children from being exposed to “adult cabaret” performances, including sexually explicit drag shows, was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”

“There is no question that obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. But there is a difference between material that is ‘obscene’ in the vernacular, and material that is ‘obscene’ under the law,” Parker wrote. “Simply put, no majority of the Supreme Court has held that sexually explicit — but not obscene — speech receives less protection than political, artistic, or scientific speech.”

Parker, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, said that the law would also allow “discriminatory enforcement.”

“Whether some of us may like it or not, the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as protecting speech that is indecent but not obscene,” Parker said. 

According to a summary of the law, which was signed by Governor Bill Lee, it “creates an offense for a person who engages in an adult cabaret performance on public property or in a location where the adult cabaret performance could be viewed by a person who is not an adult.” 

The definition of adult cabaret performance in the law includes “male or female impersonators.” 

The law came before Parker after Friends of George’s, a self-described “LGBTQ theatre company” based in Memphis filed a suit challenging the law.


“I am disappointed with the judge’s decision on Senate Bill 3, which ignored 60 years of Supreme Court precedent allowing regulation of obscene entertainment in the presence of minors. Sadly, this ruling is a victory for those who support exposing children to sexual entertainment,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), the author of the bill. 

Johnson said he hoped that Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti would appeal the decision. 

“Despite the Court’s perplexing reading of the law, I am confident — and have always been — that this legislation does nothing to suppress the First Amendment,” Johnson added, saying that he would continue working to “protect the children of Tennessee.” 

In the last year, footage has emerged from around the country, including in Texas, that has appeared to show children present at sexually explicit drag shows, prompting some lawmakers to introduce legislation. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed similar legislation last month that seeks to shield children from explicit performances. 

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