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‘Textbook viewpoint discrimination’: West Texas A&M president faces First Amendment lawsuit after canceling student drag show

Walter Wendler and drag artist Vidalia Anne Gentry

Texas A&M President Walter Wendler (Photo via university); Drag artist Vidalia Anne Gentry speaks at an unrelated Human Rights Campaign press conference. (John Amis/AP Images for HRC)

The president of West Texas A&M University faces a federal lawsuit calling his cancellation of a student group’s drag show to benefit LGBTQ+ suicide prevention “textbook viewpoint discrimination” that violates the First Amendment.

Student group Spectrum WT, which scheduled a show titled “A Fool’s Drag Race” for March 31, seeks an injunction forcing the university to allow the event on campus.

In their 45-page federal lawsuit, the group notes that the university’s president Walter Wendler “confessed he is censoring” the show for personal reasons and “unabashedly admitted that doing so violates the Constitution.”

A Fool's Drag Race

A flyer for the student drag show (Image via lawsuit)

“A harmless drag show? Not possible,” Wendler remarked. “I will not appear to condone the diminishment of any group at the expense of impertinent gestures toward another group for any reason, even when the law of the land appears to require it.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the First Amendment group taking up the student’s cause, clarified the law in question.

“That ‘law of the land’ is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states. “And our Constitution prohibits public officials, including public university presidents, from silencing Americans because a public official dislikes certain points of view.”

FIRE’s attorney Adam Steinbaugh emphasized that the Constitution protected a wide variety of student speech.

“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” Steinbaugh said. “The First Amendment protects student speech, whether it’s gathering on campus to study the Bible, hosting an acid-tongued political speaker, or putting on a charity drag show.”

Spectrum WT’s president Bear Bright, who intends to perform in the drag show, indicated in a statement that Wendler’s statement will be used against him in court.

“President Wendler has made it clear to us that he knows what his legal obligations are, but he chose to ignore them, and we are thankful to FIRE for taking up our case to protect our First Amendment rights,” Bright said. “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 group’s vice president Laur Stoval also plans to perform in the show. Both Bright and Stoval are co-plaintiffs.

Laur Stovall and Bear Bright

Laur Stovall and Bear Bright (Photo via FIRE)

Bright reported learning about the cancellation on March 20 from the school’s president for student affairs Christopher Thomas, who is a co-defendant.

Half an hour after Bright’s meeting with Thomas, Wendler sent an email to students, faculty, and staff announcing that the university “will not host a drag show on campus.” Wendler labeled drag shows “divisive and demoralizing misogyny” that he believed portrayed “women as objects.”

Wendler portrayed drag as contrary to the “basis of Natural Law,” which “declared the Creator’s origin as the foundational fiber in the fabric of our nation” because “every human being is created in the image of God and, therefore, a person of dignity.”

“President Wendler also claimed that drag shows are a form of humor (a ‘slapstick sideshow’) that ‘becomes harassment’ because, in his view, it is ‘sexism’ and results in ‘[m]ocking or objectifying in any way members of any group,'” the lawsuit says.

The students note that the university never received any complaints from students or staff that the drag show would constitute harassment.

“Indeed, in 2012, West Texas A&M hosted a drag show in the Jack B. Kelley Student Center without incident,” the lawsuit notes.

West Texas A&M University’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Read the complaint here.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."