ORLANDO, Fla. –
Librarians who feared fines for hosting drag queen story hours and Pride parade organizers who worried about citations for including drag performers can breathe easier now that a judge has ruled that his injunction blocking Florida’s anti-drag law extends to all Florida venues, an attorney who is helping challenge the law said Thursday.
A pair of orders that U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell issued in the past month makes clear that drag performances in themselves are not lewd or lascivious behavior, said Gary Israel, one of the attorneys for an Orlando restaurant that filed a lawsuit challenging the new Florida law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis as unconstitutional.
“The state has a very weak hand in this litigation,” Israel said.
In his first order last month, the Orlando judge granted a preliminary injunction temporarily halting enforcement of the law until a trial is held to determine its constitutionality. He also denied a Florida licensing and regulatory agency’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. The agency appealed the decision and asked that during the appeal the injunction only be applied to the restaurant that brought the lawsuit.
Presnell rejected that argument on Wednesday, saying any harm to the state of Florida is minimal if the preliminary injunction remains in place, and that all Floridians are potentially parties since free speech is at stake. He reiterated that the law is likely unconstitutional.
“Protecting the right to freedom of speech is the epitome of acting in the public interest,” Presnell wrote. “It is no accident that this freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment.”
The state agency charged with enforcing the law, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on Thursday.
The new law punished venues for allowing children into “adult live performances.” Though it did not specify drag shows, the sponsor of the legislation said it was aimed at those performances. Venues that violated the law faced fines and the possibility of their liquor licenses being suspended or revoked. Individuals could be charged with a misdemeanor crime.
Before announcing his candidacy for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, DeSantis made anti-LGBTQ2S+ legislation a large part of his agenda as governor. Other bills he signed would ban gender-affirming care for minors and restrict discussion of personal pronouns in schools.
The lawsuit challenging the new law was brought by the owner of a Hamburger Mary’s restaurant and bar in Orlando, which regularly hosts drag shows, including family-friendly performances on Sundays that children were invited to attend. The restaurant owner said the law was overbroad, was written vaguely and violated First Amendment rights by chilling speech.
The new law crimped some Pride celebrations in Florida in June, which is Pride month.
In St. Cloud, Florida, located south of Orlando, organizers canceled their annual Pride celebration, saying hosting the celebration in the current political environment “would put our community at risk.”
Organizers of Pride festivities in Naples, in southwest Florida, moved the drag show portion of their celebration indoors. And on the other side of the state, in Port St. Lucie, the Pride Alliance of the Treasure Coast restricted its Pride festivities to people age 21 and up and canceled its parade.
“We hope that everyone understands that this is definitely not what we wanted at all and are working with the city to assure our safety as well as produce a positive event,” the alliance said in a Facebook post.
Before the law passed this spring, DeSantis’ administration had moved to revoke the liquor license of a Miami hotel that hosted a Christmas drag show under a law already on the books and took similar action against a performing arts venue in Orlando.
The federal judge’s rulings may indirectly help at least one of those cases since the state “will have a hard time proving that drag queens are lewd on their own,” Israel said.