Cracking Down on Free Speech Is Wrong No Matter Who Is Doing It

“Censorship is the antithesis of liberty. It is a tool of tyrants and despots, and has no place in a free society.” – Murray Rothbard

The president of West Texas A&M University, Walter Wendler, announced yesterday that he would prohibit a student group from hosting a charity drag show on campus, even if it meant violating the U.S. Constitution. In a statement to the university community, Wendler cited his belief that drag shows “denigrate and demean women” and that his views on Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism, as well as feminism, blackface, quinceañeras, and Newton’s Third Law of Motion, all contributed to his decision to cancel the event.

“No amount of fancy rhetorical footwork or legal wordsmithing eludes the fact that drag shows denigrate and demean women—noble goals notwithstanding,” Wendler said at the end of the letter he wrote explaining his decision. “A harmless drag show? Not possible. 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. Supporting The Trevor Project is a good idea. My recommendation is to skip the show and send the dough. Offering respect, not ridicule, is the order of the day for fair play and is the WT way. And equally important, it is the West Texas way.”

However, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Freedoms’ (FIRE) Sabrina Conza argued that Wendler’s personal opinions on drag shows and other issues are subordinate to his obligations under the law. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to remind Wendler that the First Amendment and Texas law protect student expression from administrative censorship.

Conza pointed out that drag shows are protected expressive conduct, like other forms of theatrical performance, picketing or leafleting, or wearing armbands to protest war. All public university presidents should understand the First Amendment’s long-standing and basic principle of protecting expression that government officials may dislike.

The author also noted that other public universities have attempted to shut down similar student performances, but have failed. She referred to situation that occurred at George Mason University where the school punished a fraternity in the early 90s for hosting an “ugly woman contest” that was criticized for its racist and sexist overtones. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the fraternity’s drag skit enjoyed constitutional protection because it conveyed a message through the mode of dress and use of a theatrical medium. Therefore, Wendler’s decision to cancel the event at West Texas A&M University violates students’ rights to free expression.

In a letter to President Wendler, FIRE wrote:

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

FIRE is right. Regardless of what one believes about drag queen performances, it is protected speech and a state-run school should not censor it. I’m sure someone like Wendler would be incensed if another university did not allow a conservative-themed event to take place because of the president’s personal beliefs. What is even more egregious about Wendler’s actions is that he is fully aware that he is violating the First Amendment – he said as much in his letter.

Free speech is for everyone – even those who give performances that could be viewed as “demeaning” towards women. Those who say they value liberty must be careful about becoming that which they claim to oppose

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