WTAMU President Walter Wendler Sued for Drag Show Censorship by FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression | Dallas Observer

Education

West Texas A&M President Sued Over Drag Show Censorship

Drag queens have come under fire from many Texas conservatives.
Drag queens have come under fire from many Texas conservatives. Dennis Jansen
Editor's note, 3/24/23, 5:54 p.m.: This story has been updated to include new information regarding a motion for a restraining order, and a response from West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler.

A First Amendment fire is raging at West Texas A&M University, prompting one free speech advocacy group to file a lawsuit challenging the school's cancellation of a drag show.

On Friday morning, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression filed a lawsuit that names WTAMU President Walter Wendler as a defendant. The suit comes after Wendler sent an email earlier this week explaining why he’d chosen to cancel a student-organized drag show. Later on Friday, FIRE announced that it has "filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to stop WTAMU's president from preventing the drag show from going forward."

The charity drag event would have raised funds for the Trevor Project, an organization that seeks to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth.

FIRE noted in a press release that the lawsuit is aimed at stamping out Wendler’s “unlawful attempt to censor students” and alleges that he violated students’ constitutional rights. The group stated that as the leader of a public university, Wendler is forbidden by the First Amendment from imposing his personal views on students by squelching the show.

Wendler attempted to argue in his email that drag shows are misogynistic, “divisive” and “demeaning” to women. He also stated that “the law of the land appears to require” that WTAMU let the event take place.

“We agree; the law of the land DOES require it,” FIRE’s press release continued. “Now FIRE is taking him to court to make sure that happens.”

WTAMU’s president has made clear “that he knows what his legal obligations are” but decided to ignore them, one student-plaintiff said in the release, also expressing gratitude to FIRE. The Observer reached out to Wendler for comment, who replied, "I have no comments."

“Hopefully, this lawsuit will not just help us, the LGBTQ+ students here at WTAMU, protect our rights, but also help protect students’ rights across the U.S.,” the student, Bear Bright, continued.

FIRE attorneys blasted Wendler in the press release, pointing out that under the First Amendment, students’ speech is protected — regardless of whether it’s agreeable to college presidents. They further classified Wendler’s edict as “textbook viewpoint discrimination” and pointed out that his personal opinion doesn’t trump the Constitution.

“President Wendler isn’t just violating the First Amendment, he’s also violating Texas education law,” FIRE senior attorney JT Morris said in the release. “Public colleges and universities must be beacons of free expression, not Orwellian conformity centers.”

In a thread posted to Twitter, FIRE added that Wendler and other university officials and professors have the right to express their opinions, including regarding drag shows.

“But Wendler crossed the line by silencing a student performance just because he doesn’t like its message,” the group continued. “That’s why FIRE is here to make sure President Wendler and the university respect students’ rights.”
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Simone Carter is a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer who graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter

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