US judge throws out Texas ban on drag acts, calls it unconstitutional

Voters line up at a polling station on Election Day in Houston

(This Sept. 26 story has been corrected to show the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas represented the plaintiffs, not the national ACLU, in paragraph 5)

By Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) - A federal judge in Texas ruled on Tuesday that the state's new law limiting public drag performances was an unconstitutional restriction on speech and he permanently forbid enforcement of it.

"Not all people will like or condone certain performances," U.S. District Judge David Hittner wrote. "This is no different than a person's opinion on certain comedy or genres of music, but that alone does not strip First Amendment protection."

More than a dozen states have sought to restrict drag shows over last year, with Texas one of at least four to pass restrictions into law, part of broader Republican efforts to regulate the behavior of LGBT people.

Hittner ruled that the Texas law was discriminatory and improperly vague. He said drag performances were not inherently obscene, and were the sort of expressive speech protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Drag performers and Pride march organizers joined the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas in a lawsuit in Houston's federal court seeking to block the law. Modern drag has roots in musical and dance performances in LGBT venues.

The office of the Texas attorney general defended the law, which, among other restrictions, banned "the exhibition of sexual gesticulations using accessories or prosthetics that exaggerate male or female sexual characteristics" in public, or in venues where people under 18 may see it. Violations could be punished by fines and a jail sentence of up to one year.

Texas lawmakers said the law was needed to protect children from seeing "sexually explicit" content.

Opponents of the law said it was so broad that it appeared to criminalize acts by pop stars and cheerleaders, and that it was explicitly intended to target LGBT performers.

Other federal judges in Tennessee, Florida and Montana have blocked similar new drag restrictions, finding similar free-speech violations.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by David Gregorio)