West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) student group Spectrum WT and two of the group’s student leaders have filed suit against West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler after Wendler announced earlier this week he was cancelling a student-organized drag show that would have benefitted The Trevor Project.

Wendler issued a letter declaring there is “no such thing” as a “harmless drag show,” comparing drag to blackface and claiming drag “denigrates” women. Drag shows, he claimed, “stereotype womern in cartoon-like extremes for the amusement of others and discriminate against womanhood.”

In a press release announcing the lawsuit, FIRE said Wendler had “unapologetically vowed to prevent the event from happening, ‘even when the law of the land appears to require it.’”

Noting that “The First Amendment is not optional for public university presidents,” the FIRE press release continues, “Today, the students Wendler silenced are making sure he’ll answer in court.”

Spectrum WT President Bear Bright, quoted in the press release, said, “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. Hopefully, this lawsuit will not just help us, the LGBTQ+ students here at WTAMU, protect our rights but will also help protect students’ rights across the U.S.”

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

The press release notes that FIRE wrote to Wendler on Tuesday, March 21 “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 move to cancel the charity event also violates a Texas campus free speech law signed into law in 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott that prohibits a university from taking “action against a student organization or deny[ing] the organization any benefit” on the basis of “any expressive activities of the organization.”

JT Morris, FIRE’s senior attorney, said Wendler “isn’t just violating the First Amendment, he’s also violating Texas education law. Public colleges and universities must be beacons of free expression, not Orwellian conformity centers.”

And FIRE attorney Conor Fitzpatrick added that “Wendler’s edict is textbook viewpoint discrimination. [His] person opinion on drag shows does not override the Constitution. The show must go on.”

— Tammye Nash