The president of West Texas A&M University said yesterday he will violate the law, that is, the U.S. Constitution, to stop a student group’s charity drag show from taking place on campus.
In a campus-wide statement announcing the show’s cancellation, WTAMU President Walter Wendler said he believes it is “not possible” for there to be a “harmless drag show.” FIRE wrote Wendler today to remind him that his opinions on drag shows do not supersede his First Amendment obligation to allow students to express themselves and for others to enjoy that expression.
In the statement to the WTAMU community yesterday, Wendler said the university “will not host” the March 31 event because, in his view, drag shows “denigrate and demean women” and that, in his view, “being created in God’s image is the basis of Natural Law.” Wendler said his beliefs about Christianity, and other religions including Buddhism and Judaism, as well as his views on feminism, blackface, quinceañeras, and Newton’s Third Law of Motion all shaped his decision to cancel the event — “even if the law of the land appears to require” WTAMU to host it.
We explained to Wendler today that as the president of a public university bound by the Constitution, his personal opinions on things like “Natural Law” are subordinate to his obligations under the actual law. Not least of which, the First Amendment and Texas law protect student expression from administrative censorship.
Drag shows are protected expressive conduct like other kinds of theatrical performances, picketing or leafleting, or wearing armbands to protest war. And the First Amendment’s protection of expression that government officials may dislike is a long-standing and basic principle that all public university presidents should understand.
Other public universities have tried, and failed, to shut down similar student performances for fear of causing offense. Take, for example, George Mason University’s punishment of a fraternity in the early 90s for hosting an “ugly woman contest” characterized as being riddled with “racist and sexist” overtones, including contestants “dressed as caricatures of different types of women.” That event was surely offensive to some administrators, students, and the public, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held the fraternity’s drag skit enjoyed constitutional protection because the skit intended to convey a message, both through the mode of dress and use of a theatrical medium.
His personal opinions on things like “Natural Law” are subordinate to his obligations under the actual law.
The court found that “even crude street skits come within the First Amendment’s reach,” as “some forms of entertainment are so inherently expressive as to fall within” the scope of freedom of expression “regardless of their quality.” The Fourth Circuit’s holding reflects the First Amendment’s longstanding protection of expressive events that some find offensive, including musical or theatrical shows, blackface performances, or movies with potentially divisive content.
We explained to President Wendler:
Against this backdrop, your avowed defiance of your constitutional obligations comes into sharp relief. In yesterday’s statement, you repeatedly boasted that you are motivated by personal animus for the message and the content you presumed the performance will include. The suppression of speech “because of its message” is viewpoint discrimination, an “egregious form” of censorship
Worse, Wendler knows he’s violating the Constitution, declaring that he “will not appear to condone the diminishment of any group [...] for any reason, even when the law of the land appears to require it.” We warned him he does so at his own peril:
Admitting that you are aware your authority as a state official is circumscribed by the First Amendment but that you nonetheless intend to violate the law to censor student speech is particularly stunning. Accordingly, we remind you that a public college administrator who violates clearly established law will not retain qualified immunity and can be held personally responsible for monetary damages for violating First Amendment rights, including punitive damages if their actions show a “reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.”
Wendler’s callous disregard for students’ rights is not a good — nor constitutional — look from a university president.
As an individual, Wendler can criticize this particular drag show, or the existence of drag writ large. No reasonable person would argue that public university administrators personally endorse the views expressed at every event hosted by every student group on campus. But as a government actor, President Wendler cannot co-opt state power to force his own views on the WTAMU community.
WTAMU must allow the show to go on — and we’ll continue watching to ensure that happens.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).