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West Texas A&M University students file free speech lawsuit after president cancels campus drag show


West Texas A&M University students file free speech lawsuit after president cancels campus drag show

Mar 24, 2023 | 11:16 am ET
By Kate McGee
West Texas A&M University students file free speech lawsuit after president cancels campus drag show
West Texas A&M University students gathered to protest against the university president’s decision to cancel a student-organized drag performance on March 23, 2023. (David Bowser for The Texas Tribune)

For mental health support for LGBTQ youth, call the Trevor Project’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 866-488-7386. For trans peer support, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

An LGBTQ student group at West Texas A&M University and its two student leaders have filed a lawsuit against university president Walter Wendler, alleging he violated their First Amendment rights when he canceled a planned campus drag show earlier this week because he believed the shows degrade women.

The lawsuit comes after days of protests each day this week, calling for Wendler to reinstate the drag show and step down as president. More than 10,000 people have signed a student petition in support of the drag show. Meanwhile, local conservative leaders have encouraged the West Texas community to attend the protests and express their support for Wendler.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Amarillo, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that Wendler is “openly defying the Constitution.”

[Performers, business owners and parents voice opposition to drag show restrictions at Texas Senate committee hearing]

“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 lawsuit reads.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a national campus free speech group, is representing the students. Lawyers from FIRE sent letters to the university and system leadership this week asking them to reinstate the show. In the lawsuit, they say no one responded to their demands.

The students want the event reinstated and ask the court to prohibit university administrators from violating their free speech rights. On Friday afternoon, FIRE also filed a temporary restraining order to stop Wendler from taking action against the students' drag show. The case will go before Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the federal judge who is also hearing the anti-abortion challenge to the Food and Drug Administration's approval of mifepristone, an abortion-inducing drug.

The lawsuit was also filed against Christopher Thomas, vice president of student affairs at the public university in Canyon, as well as Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and the system’s board of regents. In the lawsuit, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue the system leaders have not stopped Wendler from violating students’ freedom of speech.

Spokespeople for the university and system declined to comment.

[How Texas activists turned drag events into fodder for outrage]

The campus LGBTQ group called Spectrum was planning to hold the show, called A Fool’s Drag Race, on March 31, the day before April Fool’s Day. Students reserved Legacy Hall on campus and started to advertise the event, stating that all proceeds would be donated to the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide-prevention group.

According to the lawsuit, West Texas A&M administrators helped the student group navigate the campus event approval process throughout February and March.

Then, the students allege that administrators told them on March 20 the drag show was canceled because Wendler disapproved. Wendler sent a letter to the campus community Monday announcing drag shows are banned on campus.

In the letter, the president said drag shows degrade women because they “stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood.”

He argued in his letter that allowing drag shows goes against the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s purpose, saying they’re inappropriate even if they’re not illegal.

Students rejected Wendler’s assertions and said he mischaracterized the art form.

Drag shows frequently feature men dressing as women in exaggerated styles and have been a mainstay in the LGBTQ community for decades. Drag performers say their work is an expression of queer joy — and a form of constitutionally protected speech about societal gender norms.

Dan Rogers, chair of the Amarillo GOP, emailed members Thursday encouraging them to “support Dr. Walter Wendler, President of WTAMU in his stand against evil.”

A second online petition supporting Wendler has around 4,500 signatures as of Friday morning.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University System and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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