In a recent ruling, Judge Gregory A. Presnell of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida temporarily blocked the enforcement of a Florida law that opponents argue inhibits the free speech rights of drag artists. The legislation, known as the “Protection of Children Act” (SB-1438), was signed into law last month by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Details of the Protection of Children Act
The Act aims to protect children from obscene “adult live performances,” as per state leaders. Any business found violating this law is potentially subject to fines and the revocation of their operating or liquor licenses by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR). Critics, however, label the bill as “anti-drag” and claim it unfairly targets and censors drag queen performers.
The lawsuit challenging the Act was filed by the drag-themed restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s. The suit argues that the legislation explicitly stifles speech and expression protected by the First Amendment, pointing out that its language is “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.” Hamburger Mary’s has been compelled to cancel its family-friendly events and censor itself for fear of repercussions. Judge Presnell, in his ruling, concurred with this perspective, stating that the Act appears to suppress the speech of drag queen performers. The law, he said, failed to be narrowly tailored, leading to a clash with the Florida ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ and other laws. In response to the lawsuit, the defendants, including Gov. DeSantis and DBPR Secretary Melanie Griffin, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. They alleged that the lawsuit was a “shotgun pleading” and lacked legal standing. The defense also invoked sovereign immunity protection for the State of Florida and its governor.
Judge Presnell, however, denied the motion to dismiss, citing a substantial risk to Hamburger Mary’s licenses due to the Act’s vague and overbroad language. He emphasized that terms like “live performance,” “child,” “lewd conduct,” and “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts” were examples of ambiguous terminology. The judge also expressed concerns that the Act contradicts Florida Statute 847.013, which addresses minors’ exposure to “harmful motion pictures, exhibitions, shows, presentations, or representations.” He further pointed out the provision in the law that allows a minor, accompanied by their parents, to attend any such exhibitions, regardless of the minor’s age.
Implications of the Ruling
Judge Presnell’s order temporarily prevents the DBPR from enforcing the law until a proper trial can evaluate the merits of the case. This decision is seen as a win for those opposing the Act. Presnell suggested that a drag performer reading a children’s book to a minor during a performance, while some might find it inappropriate, does not necessarily constitute an obscene performance. He argued that existing obscenity laws provide sufficient authority to protect children from constitutionally unprotected obscene exhibitions or shows.
Reactions to the Ruling
In response to the ruling, a spokesperson for Gov. DeSantis said that they believe preventing the sexualization of children by limiting access to adult live performances is constitutional. The spokesperson stated that they think the judge’s opinion is incorrect and that they look forward to prevailing on appeal. Hamburger Mary’s, however, continues to argue that their family-friendly drag shows could be banned under the new law and has canceled some events as a result. For more on this story, visit The Bigger Picture. This case underscores the ongoing debates around freedom of speech and expression, particularly in the context of drag performances. The Florida law exemplifies how legislative measures aimed at protecting children can have unintended consequences that affect a broader range of people and activities. As the case progresses, observers across the nation will be watching closely, as the outcome could have significant implications for free speech rights, children’s welfare, and the future of drag performances in Florida and beyond.