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Utah City Must Let Drag Show Go On, Judge Rules

Utah City Must Let Drag Show Go On, Judge Rules

Southern Utah Drag Stars

Attempts to keep a drag troupe from holding a show in a public park most likely violated the First Amendment, says a federal judge.

The city of St. George, Utah, must allow a drag troupe to hold a show in a public park this month, a federal judge ruled Friday.

The family-friendly performance by Southern Utah Drag Stars was originally scheduled to take place April 28, but city officials refused to grant a special event permit for use of the park. The city cited ordinances that had never been enforced before, banning advertising of events until a final permit is issued. “The record shows the use of this prohibition was a pretext for discrimination,” U.S. District Judge David Nuffer wrote in a ruling granting a preliminary injunction that will allow the show to be held June 30.

The St. George City Council also placed a moratorium on processing special event permit applications for the next six months but “retroactively exempted the majority of other known violators of the advertising prohibition and exempted major swaths of events from the moratorium,” Nuffer noted.

Southern Utah Drag Stars and founder Mitski Avalōx filed suit against the City Council and other city officials May 23, saying that preventing their performance was a violation of their free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah Foundation, the national ACLU, and the law firm Jenner & Block.

In granting the injunction, Nuffer found the drag troupe was likely to succeed in proving its First Amendment claim, so he let the performance go forward. “Public spaces are public spaces,” he wrote. “Public spaces are not private spaces. Public spaces are not majority spaces. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution ensures that all citizens, popular or not, majority or minority, conventional or unconventional, have access to public spaces for public expression.”

“Public officials take an oath to ‘support, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Utah,’” he added. “They do not merely serve the citizens who elect them, the majority of citizens in the community, or a vocal minority in the community."

Drag performances have been an issue in the city since the HBO series We’re Here filmed a drag show in a public park there last year, the Associated Press reports. The city granted permits for the event even though some members of the City Council opposed doing so, as did conservative activists. City Manager Adam Lenhard noted there was no legal basis for denying the permits, and he eventually resigned. Utah state legislators considered a bill that would require warning notices for drag shows, Pride parades, and similar events in public spaces, but it stalled.

Amid the uproar, Avalōx founded Southern Utah Drag Stars to foster diversity and inclusion. “I made it my mission to continue to do these events and not just one month out of the year, but to do so people that were like me when I was little ... can see that there are queer adults that get to live a long and fulfilled life,” Avalōx told the AP. “My biggest ambition was to provide a public space where people can go to a park and enjoy a show that’s meant for everyone.”

Attorneys in the case praised Nuffer’s ruling. “Quite simply, drag is protected by the First Amendment. The city of St. George’s selective and discriminatory refusal to permit a family-friendly drag event impermissibly silenced LGBTQ+ Utahns and violated our client’s constitutional rights,” Valentina De Fex, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Utah, said in a press release. “This ruling is a win for not just our client — who will now be able to hold an event on June 30 that celebrates inclusivity and joy — but for all people in St. George and throughout Utah. We are grateful for the court’s decisive action to disallow attempts by city officials to implement subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate to silence and erase LGBTQIA+ and gender-diverse communities throughout the state.”

“We are very pleased that the court has decided to order the City of St. George to grant Southern Utah Drag Stars a special events permit to host their family-friendly drag show, and we will continue to fight to protect the fundamental First and Fourteenth Amendment rights that drag performers are entitled to,” added Rémi Jaffré, partner at Jenner & Block.

“By allowing Drag Stars to move forward with their event, the court recognized what has always been true: Drag is a form of expression that is protected by the First Amendment. We are very pleased that the show will go on,” said Emerson Sykes, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “This is a win not just for Drag Stars, but for all performers, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who cares about limiting government officials’ authority to impose their subjective views of what’s appropriate on all of us.”

The decision comes weeks after a federal judge ruled against a restriction on drag shows in Tennessee. The judge — appointed by former President Donald Trump — found that the recently signed state law that banned drag shows in public places violated the First Amendment.

In Utah, St. George city officials issued a statement saying, “Our intent is always to follow the law both when we enact laws and when we enforce laws, and we will continue to do so. We have read Judge Nuffer’s opinion and while we are disappointed in the result, we are currently evaluating our options in light of the ruling.”

Pictured: Members of Southern Utah Drag Stars

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