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University hit with First Amendment lawsuit for canceling drag show

Complaint also asks to hold President Walter Wendler personally liable, seeks punitive damages from campus leader

A lawsuit has been filed against West Texas A&M University leaders for canceling a campus drag show, alleging the decision violated students’ First Amendment rights.

Leaders of the student group Spectrum WT, represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, filed the lawsuit Friday.

It not only names as a defendant President Walter Wendler in his official capacity, but also seeks punitive damages against Wendler personally, which means if found guilty he would have to pay out-of-pocket for damages.

“Remarkably, Wendler appeared to know he was violating the law by canceling the show. Announcing the cancellation in a campus-wide email, Wendler acknowledged the ‘law of the land appears to require’ him, as the leader of a public university, to permit student expression he dislikes,” a news release from FIRE stated.

The lawsuit alleges he acted with a “retaliatory and oppressive intent toward Plaintiffs in reckless and callous disregard for their clearly-established constitutional rights.”

FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh told The College Fix in an email Friday that “Officials who violate the First Amendment should not be shielded from consequences, especially when they’ve had ample warning that they are violating the law.”

FIRE wrote to Wendler on Tuesday “reminding him that drag performances are inherently expressive acts protected by the First Amendment” and gave him until Wednesday “to confirm that he would restore the event. But Wendler gave no indication that he would stop violating the Constitution,” the foundation’s news release stated.

The lawsuit alleges West Texas A&M University leaders violated students’ First Amendment rights, including viewpoint discrimination and exclusion from a public forum. It seeks a court order allowing the event to take place as planned.

Kelly Polden, a spokesperson for the university, told The Fix in an email Friday “We cannot comment due to litigation.”

Wendler had canceled the drag show, planned for March 31 on his campus, arguing in a memo to the campus community drag shows are “demeaning” to women and “demoralizing misogyny.”

The show was also a fundraiser for The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community.

Wendler went into great detail in his nearly 750-word letter sent March 20 explaining why he canceled the event, arguing “every human being is created in the image of God.”

The letter continued:

Being created in God’s image is the basis of Natural Law. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, prisoners of the culture of their time as are we, declared the Creator’s origin as the foundational fiber in the fabric of our nation as they breathed life into it.

Does a drag show preserve a single thread of human dignity? I think not. As a performance exaggerating aspects of womanhood (sexuality, femininity, gender), drag shows stereotype women in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood. Any event which diminishes an individual or group through such representation is wrong.

But the lawsuit argues the Texas legislature “has codified the First Amendment’s prohibition on viewpoint discrimination, barring public universities from ‘tak[ing] action against a student organization or deny[ing] the organization any benefit generally available to other student organizations at the institution on the basis of a political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic viewpoint expressed by the organization or of any expressive activities of the organization.'”

The memo angered some students, who held a protest this week. A petition in support of the drag show has garnered more than 10,000 signatures as of Friday.

MORE: Texas university president cancels drag show, calls it ‘demeaning’ to women

IMAGE: KVII screenshot

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About the Author
Fix Editor
Jennifer Kabbany is editor-in-chief of The College Fix.