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Tennessee DA Threatens Pride With Unconstitutional Anti-Drag Law, Gets Sued

Tennessee DA Threatens Pride With Unconstitutional Anti-Drag Law, Gets Sued

Ryan Desmond and letter
Desmond courtesy of Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference

Blount County prosecutor Ryan Desmond says the law is enforceable in his jurisdiction. Now Pride organizers and drag performer Flamy Grant are suing him.

The prosecutor for Blount County, Tenn., says he’ll enforce Tennessee’s anti-drag law against a Pride festival scheduled for this weekend, even though a federal judge has ruled the law unconstitutional. Now Pride organizers and drag performer Flamy Grant have sued him.

District Attorney General Ryan Desmond sent a letter to Blount County Pride organizers, officials in Blount County and the city of Maryville, and administrators at Maryville College, where the festival is to be held Saturday. The letter was obtained by the Law Dork blog and various local media.

Desmond said he has become aware of an event that “is marketing itself in a manner which raises concerns that the event may violate certain criminal statutes within the State of Tennessee,” he wrote. “After thorough research and reflection, and in order to put potential parties on notice of possible ramifications of criminal conduct, | believe it is appropriate to share my prosecutorial position on the issues at hand.”

He is aware of the ruling that the law in question, the Adult Entertainment Act, was unconstitutional, but he has concluded it is applicable only in the state’s 30th Judicial District, made up mostly of Shelby County, where the lawsuit against it originated. The Tennessee attorney general has concluded that as well and has appealed the ruling, Desmond added.

“It is certainly possible that the event in question will not violate any of the criminal statutes, however if sufficient evidence is presented to this office that these referenced criminal statutes have been violated, our office will ethically and justly prosecute these cases in the interest of justice,” he continued. He said his office has found there is no legal way to prevent the performance.

The Adult Entertainment Act classifies drag performances as “adult cabaret acts” and says they cannot be held on public property or where they might be viewed by a minor. In a June ruling, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker found that the law interfered with the right to free speech. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “commands that laws infringing on the Freedom of Speech must be narrow and well-defined. The AEA is neither,” Parker wrote.

That's the argument that Blount County Pride and Grant, known offstage as Matthew Lovegood, are making in their suit, filed late Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee and seeking a temporary restraining order to stop any prosecution of festival participants. Desmond's letter "is a blatant attempt to chill Plaintiffs' speech and expression protected under the First Amendment," the suit states. It notes that Desmond admitted he tried to find ways to keep the event from happening and asserts that his letter constitutes retaliation "because he disagrees with the content and message of Plaintiffs' speech."

The festival, to be held from 1 to 8 p.m. at Maryville College’s Clayton Center for the Arts, is set to include a drag queen story hour, a comedy revue, arts and crafts activities, and performances by various drag queens, climaxing with a concert by Grant, who recently topped the iTunes Christian charts with the album Bible Belt Baby and the song “Good Day.”

“Our goal with Blount Pride has always been simply to provide a safe place for LGBTQ people to connect, celebrate, and share resources,” Blount Pride board president Ari Baker said in a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which is representing his organization and Grant. “We’ve worked hard to create a supportive Pride celebration, but now we are worried that law enforcement wrongly thinks this anti-drag law applies to our event. We are filing this lawsuit to protect that space and our entertainers’ ability to perform. We appreciate community members’ support and we encourage families to attend and celebrate with us on Saturday.”

In the release, Grant added, “Drag is an ancient art form, and I have seen how it can help build community, hold space, and connect people. I joined this lawsuit to ensure that I can continue performing in Tennessee, because I have seen how drag speaks to people who simply want to belong and be loved, making them feel safe and supported. That’s all I want my art to do.”

Grant also posted a statement to Instagram saying, "It continues to astonish me the lengths some Americans will ... go to [to] oppress their neighbors."

The suit also names as defendants Blount County Sheriff James Berrong, Alcoa Police Chief David Carswell, Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp and Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti.

William Gill, a law professor at Lincoln Memorial University, told Knoxville TV station WVLT that Desmond is correct in saying Parker’s order applies only in the 30th Judicial District and that the law can be enforced elsewhere in the state. However, he noted that the law’s validity is “significantly called into question” because the only ruling on it has found it unconstitutional. Prosecutors have the right to exercise discretion about enforcing it, he said.

Maryville College President Bryan Coker released a statement to WVLT saying college officials have received the letter but believe the event can be held without legal complications. Blount County Pride is renting the college’s art center, and “given the contract specification that the event will be conducted in compliance with all applicable laws, we believe the Pride Festival can move forward successfully,” he said.

The college is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), an LGBTQ-affirming denomination. The school’s relationship with the church, plus its mission and history, “call for us to love and support those of all identities, and especially those who are marginalized in society,” Coker continued. “We strongly support the mission and work of Blount Pride and stand with our LGBTQ+ community members.”

Pictured: Ryan Desmond and his letter

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