Federal judge blocks Blount Co. DA from enforcing ‘anti-drag’ law at Pride event after ACLU files suit

The filing lists Christian artist and drag performer Flamy Grant (Matthew Lovegood) and Blount Pride as plaintiffs.
DA Ryan Desmond has threatened Blount Pride with legal action under Tennessee’s anti-drag law, the Adult Entertainment Act.
Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 10:46 AM EDT
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MARYVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit Wednesday in response to a letter from Blount County District Attorney General Ryan Desmond threatening legal action over a pride event scheduled for Saturday at Maryville College.

Friday, Judge Ronnie Greer, who is presiding over the case, granted a temporary restraining order blocking Desmond from enforcing the law while the case is in court.

Previous Coverage: Blount County DA threatens Blount Pride with prosecution over event

In the letter, Desmond said he plans to enforce the Tennessee Adult Entertainment Act, also known as the anti-drag law. It’s a law that went in to effect in April allowing criminal charges for anyone who puts on loosely-defined adult-oriented shows in public spaces or places where children might view them.

The law has faced backlash from both sides of the political aisle for its vagueness, with some calling it an assault on LGBTQ+ Tennessean’s First Amendment rights. In fact, Thomas L. Parker, a Trump-appointed district judge in Shelby County, ruled that the law was unconstitutional for that reason in June.

Due to an appeal filed by Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, Desmond has claimed he has the legal authority to enforce the law in Blount County, which is outside Parker’s judicial district.

Previous Coverage: Trump-appointed federal judge rejects Tennessee’s anti-drag law as too broad, too vague

Now, the ACLU has gotten involved. The filing lists Christian artist and drag performer Flamy Grant (Matthew Lovegood) and Blount Pride as plaintiffs. It’s filed against Desmond, Blount County Sheriff James Berrong, Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp, Alcoa Police Chief David Carswell and Skrmetti.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU points out that Desmond sent a threatening letter directly to Blount Pride and Maryville College instead of making a public declaration that he intended to enforce the law.

In an email to WVLT News, Desmond said that he was not trying to violate anyone’s First Amendment rights.

“The purpose of the notice was simply to give individuals reasonable and fair notice that there is criminal statute that is still in effect in this jurisdiction,” he said.

Additionally, the ACLU claimed that Desmond, who shares a position with Shelby County’s Parker, should come to the same conclusion that the anti-drag law is unconstitutional, given Desmond’s oath to uphold the constitution.

WVLT News spoke with a legal expert about Desmond’s decision. Lincoln Memorial University Associate Professor of Law William Gill said Desmond was within his legal rights to enforce the anti-drag law. However, Gill did point out that Desmond did not make it clear why he thinks the law is constitutional, opposing the ruling made by his Trump-appointed colleague in West Tennessee.

The ACLU is challenging whether or not Desmond can uphold the law, however. In the suit, the group claims that, since Parker ruled the anti-drag law was unconstitutional in a case against Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy, the same ruling should apply to all Tennessee district attorneys.

To back this up, the ACLU references the U.S. Supreme Court cases Will v. Michigan Dep’t of State Police and Kentucky v. Graham. In those cases, the Supreme Court ruled “a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official’s office” and “as such, it is no different from a suit against the State itself.”

The ACLU’s argument is that, since it was ruled unconstitutional to enforce the anti-drag law in Shelby County, it should also be unconstitutional to do so in Blount County.

The event does include drag performances, but the anti-drag law, despite it’s unofficial name, does not actually mention drag by name. Instead, it refers to a loose definition of adult content. Blount Pride officials said in a statement that their goal behind the event is to create a space for LGBTQ+ to gather and connect.

“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. “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.”

Grant added to Baker’s statement, defending drag as an ancient artform that can help people connect.

“Drag is an ancient art form, and I have seen how it can help build community, hold space, and connect people,” Grant said. “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.”

This sentiment was echoed by the ACLU in the lawsuit, which points out that most drag shows do not include sexual content or revealing outfits. The ACLU also said that Blount Pride’s event was pointedly G-rated. In part because of the response to what is intended to be a family-friendly event, the ACLU-TN’s legal director, Stella Yarbrough, said Desmond is trying to erase LGBTQ+ people from public life.

“Threatening to enforce this unconstitutional law amounts to a harmful attempt to remove LGBTQ people from public life, which is simply unacceptable,” Yarbrough said. “The court has made it abundantly clear that drag performance is constitutionally-protected expression under the First Amendment, regardless of where in the state it is performed.”

Blount Pride is scheduled for 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday at Maryville College’s Clayton Center for the Arts. As it stands, the event will proceed as scheduled. Updates will come through Blount Pride’s website and social media.

Desmond’s office released a statement, as follows, saying he is cooperating with the proceedings.

“My office is aware of the federal filings and will fully cooperate with the proceedings,” Desmond said.