Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect a recent rebranding of the ‘FIRE’ foundation.
AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – In the wake of West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler’s cancelation of a planned on-campus drag show and subsequent letter commenting on the decision, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression announced that it is representing the student group Spectrum WT and two of its student leaders in a lawsuit in Amarillo Federal Court against WTAMU and Texas A&M University System officials.
According to court documents filed on Friday in the US District Court Northern District of Texas Amarillo Division, Spectrum WT and student leaders Barrett Bright and Lauren Stovall filed a lawsuit against West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler, Christopher Thomas, the vice president for student affairs at the university, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp and the members of the Texas A&M University System’s Board of Regents.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are asking the court to:
- Stop the WT and Texas A&M officials from preventing the March 31 charity drag show;
- Stop the WT and Texas A&M officials from prohibiting future similar events;
- Issue a declaratory judgment that Wendler’s cancellation of the March 31 event, and his pledge to prevent similar events at WT, violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; and
- Grant the plaintiffs both compensatory, nominal, and punitive damages against Wendler in his individual capacity, including attorney’s fees and “any other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.”
“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,” said Spectrum WT President Bear Bright in FIRE’s announcement of the lawsuit. “Hopefully, this lawsuit will not just help us the LGBTQ+ students here at WTAMU protect our rights, but also help protect students’ rights across the U.S.”
As previously reported on MyHighPlains.com, the March 31 drag show was planned as an effort to raise money for the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that centers around suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth. Its cancellation and Wendler’s letter drew protests from WT students standing in support of the drag show as well as at least one Change.Org petition, and a number of WT alumni making comments and withdrawing support from the university. There was also a counter-petition and demonstrations from those who have shown support for Wendler’s cancellation of the show, including from local members of the Potter County Republican Party.
“College presidents can’t silence students simply because they disagree with their expression,” said FIRE attorney Adam Steinbaugh in the announcement. “The First Amendment protects student speech, whether it’s gathering on campus to study the Bible, hosting an acid-tongued political speaker, or putting on a charity drag show.”
Steinbaugh continued, “The First Amendment protects everybody, and it protects people, especially when their speech is unpopular with everyone else. It protects people on the right, it protects people on the left, it protects people anywhere in between and if you start sacrificing the First Amendment rights of people because you dislike their message, you’re losing your own rights, so we need to stand up for speech from every perspective and from every quarter in order to protect all of our rights.”
Steinbaugh shared they are hoping the court hears the case soon, to allow the show to take place.
“We think that the court should hear this on an expedited basis, because the show is supposed to happen very soon,” said Steinbaugh. “So, absent a courts intervention, the show won’t be able to go on.”
What does the complaint say?
In the complaint, titled as a “verified complaint for civil rights violations,” the plaintiffs claim that Wendler “is openly defying the constitution” by not letting Spectrum WT exercise “its clear first amendment right” to host a charity drag show based on his personal views, even after the group allegedly followed the university’s requirements for campus events.
“Whether students gather on campus to study the Bible, host a political talk, or put on a drag show for charity, the First Amendment prohibits public university officials from suppressing the students’ expression simply because the administrator (or anyone else) finds the message offensive,” the complaint reads.
Much of the complaint focuses on the claim that what Wendler did through his letter is “textbook viewpoint discrimination” as a public university official. The lawsuit was filed under Section 1983 of the U.S. Code which, according to the University of Minnesota’s Law School’s website, gives people the right “to sue state government employees and others acting ‘under color of state law’ for civil rights violations,” aimed at enforcing civil rights that already exist.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs lay out the protocols that recognized student organizations, which Spectrum WT is listed as on the university website, reserve spaces to host events on campus, including Legacy Hall, the space in the Jack B. Kelley Student Center where the drag show was scheduled to be. The documents stated that the student organization first applied to use the space for the event in January 2023 for the evening of March 31.
After the request, the organization allegedly received “tentative confirmation” to host the event at Legacy Hall. According to the documents, this consisted of gaining approval from officials at the student center surrounding logistics and other details for the drag show.
On March 20, Bright, who is the president of Spectrum WT, was asked to meet with Thomas. In that meeting, Thomas allegedly said that the university was canceling the charity drag show, stating that “Wendler did not like the idea of the drag show, believing it discriminated against women.” Around 30 minutes later, according to the documents, Wendler sent out the letter to students, faculty and staff.
“Other than the assertions made in President Wendler’s March 20 statement, neither President Wendler, the other defendants, nor any other staff member at West Texas A&M offered an explanation or rationale for canceling the charity drag show,” the complaint read. “At no time did President Wendler – or any other West Texas A&M employee or Defendant – indicate Spectrum WT had failed to comply with university policy or any other condition necessary to proceed with the event.”
Officials said in the documents that “upon information and belief,” the university has not received any complaints from students or staff that a drag show “would constitute harassment of any individual or group.” The complaint goes on to say that the university hosted a drag show at the student center in 2012 “without incident.”
Later in the complaint, the plaintiffs said they have suffered injuries because they can no longer express their First Amendment rights, as well as having the university hinder their ability to host the show on campus. They also claim, based on Wendler’s “ambiguous” letter, that future events could be impacted with his “blanket prohibition” on drag.
“President Wendler’s promise to ignore ‘the law of the land’ and his establishment of a policy that ‘West Texas A&M University will not host a drag show on campus’ is chilling and will continue to chill Plaintiffs’ ability to organize similar events,” the documents read, “whether or not styled as a ‘drag show’ – if they convey a political, ideological or academic message that President Wendler believes to be demeaning. These include Plaintiffs’ intended future drag shows, including one Plaintiffs are planning for spring 2024.”
MyHighPlains.com reached out to the Texas A&M University system, which stated “no comment.” In a statement from WTAMU officials, they said “we cannot comment due to litigation.”
The full initial complaint can be viewed below.