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Supreme Court declines Florida's request to enforce anti-drag show law

The law makes it a crime to admit minors to shows that the state deems too sexually explicit.
Drag queens ride on a float during the Stonewall Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Fla. on June 17, 2023.
Drag queens ride on a float during the Stonewall Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Fla., in June. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected Florida’s bid to enforce a state law that targets drag show performances that, challengers say, imposes unlawful restrictions on free speech.

The court, divided 6-3, with three conservatives dissenting, turned away an emergency request from Florida officials after lower courts blocked the law statewide. The majority did not explain its reasoning.

The measure, widely seen as part of a conservative campaign against LGBTQ rights, was passed this year by the Florida Legislature. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination and has frequently leaned into culture war issues, signed the bill into law. DeSantis this year also signed into law a bill that restricts transgender health care.

Officially dubbed the Protection of Children Act, the law makes it a crime to admit a child to an “adult live performance” that the state deems sexually explicit.

The three justices who would have granted the state's request were Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

A district court judge blocked the law under the First Amendment in part because it was too vaguely written, with key terms such as “lewd conduct” not defined. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left that ruling in place.

The legal challenge was brought by an Orlando bar and restaurant called Hamburger Mary’s, which hosts what it calls family friendly drag shows.

The restaurant’s lawyers said in court papers that the shows “are not harmful to minors but likely still run afoul of the act due to its overbreadth and vagueness.”

The district court prevented the state from enforcing the law not just against Hamburger Mary’s but also statewide. The state argued that the judge did not have authority to do so.

In its application to the Supreme Court, the state asked the justices to narrow the injunction so it applied only to the restaurant.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, another conservative, wrote a brief opinion explaining why he voted against the state, saying the narrow issue the state was raising was not one the court would normally hear. Fellow conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined most of Kavanaugh's opinion.

"This case is therefore an imperfect vehicle for considering the general question of whether a district court may enjoin a government from enforcing a law against non-parties to the litigation," he wrote.