How ‘History and Tradition’ Rulings Are Changing American Law

In November 2022, a group of L.G.B.T.Q. students at West Texas A&M University started planning a drag show for the following spring. They wanted to raise money for suicide prevention and stand up for queer self-expression at a time when conservatives in Texas, in the name of protecting children, were mobilizing to shut drag shows down.

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The student group, Spectrum WT, set a few guidelines. The show would be “PG-13,” the students told the university. Kids under the age of 18 — the students had in mind the siblings of a performer — could come only if they were accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Despite this plan, the president of West Texas A&M, Walter Wendler, announced in March 2023 that he was barring the event from campus. In a statement on his personal website, Wendler called drag shows “derisive, divisive and demoralizing misogyny.” Spectrum WT sued, arguing that Wendler’s decision to cancel the show was a “textbook” example of discriminating against speech based on viewpoint.

Legally speaking, Spectrum WT had a strong case. Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protects speech on public university campuses, “no matter how offensive” and despite “conventions of decency,” as two decisions put it. Wendler acknowledged that he was refusing to allow the drag show to take place “even when the law of the land appears to require it.”

But the lawsuit landed on the docket of Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee to the federal bench in Amarillo who is the author of several sweeping arch-conservative rulings. And in the drag-show case, Judge Kacsmaryk had a new tool, supplied by the Supreme Court. Known as the “history and tradition” test, the legal standard has been recently adopted by the court’s conservative majority to allow judges to set aside modern developments in the law to restore the precedents of the distant past.

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