- The president of West Texas A&M University canceled a student-organized drag show raising charitable funds for suicide prevention.
- President Walter Wendler unapologetically vowed to prevent the event from happening, “even when the law of the land appears to require it.”
- FIRE: The First Amendment is not optional for public university presidents. Despite Wendler’s refusal to protect the constitutional rights of his students, the First Amendment requires that the show must go on.
AMARILLO, Tex., Mar. 24, 2023 — On Monday, West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler unilaterally canceled a student group’s charity drag show fundraising for LGBTQ+ suicide prevention. Wendler said he was canceling the show because of his personal religious beliefs and because drag shows are “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny.”
Today, the students Wendler silenced are making sure he’ll answer in court.
Represented by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, student group Spectrum WT and two of its student leaders sued Wendler and other Texas A&M University System officials this morning for shutting down the group’s event.
Remarkably, Wendler appeared to know he was violating the law by canceling the show. Announcing the cancellation in a campus-wide email, Wendler acknowledged the “law of the land appears to require” him, as the leader of a public university, to permit student expression he dislikes.
“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,” said Spectrum WT President Bear Bright. “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.”
FIRE’s lawsuit seeks to halt Wendler’s unlawful censorship, ensure the show will go on, and obtain damages for violating the students’ clearly established First Amendment rights.
“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh. “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.”
FIRE wrote to Wendler on Tuesday, reminding him that drag performances are inherently expressive acts protected by the First Amendment. FIRE gave Wendler until Wednesday to confirm that he would restore the event. But Wendler gave no indication that he would stop violating the Constitution.
Wendler’s actions also violate a 2019 Texas campus free speech law, backed by broad bipartisan support and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. The law states that a university “may not take action against a student organization or deny the organization any benefit” on the basis of “any expressive activities of the organization.”
“President Wendler isn’t just violating the First Amendment, he’s also violating Texas education law,” said FIRE senior attorney JT Morris. “Public colleges and universities must be beacons of free expression, not Orwellian conformity centers.”
“President Wendler’s edict is textbook viewpoint discrimination,” said FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick. “Wendler’s personal opinion on drag shows does not override the Constitution. The show must go on.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought—the most essential qualities of liberty. FIRE educates Americans about the importance of these inalienable rights, promotes a culture of respect for these rights, and provides the means to preserve them.
Alex Griswold, Communications Campaign Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org