DeSantis Admin Punishing Hyatt Over Drag Show Could Chill Free Speech

  • The Hyatt Regency Miami’s alcohol license is being revoked after hosting a drag show, according to a complaint filed Tuesday.
  • Legal experts say the move runs counter to free speech principles.
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis praised the move and could win political points for a potential 2024 run.

The state of Florida this week took action against a hotel after it hosted a drag show performance — a move that could have a ripple effect on freedom of expression in the state.

A venue affiliated with the Hyatt Regency in Miami hosted “A Drag Queen Christmas” in December, a touring drag show that includes performers from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The venue allowed people under 18 to attend if they were accompanied by an adult.

On Tuesday, Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation filed a complaint against the venue, accusing it of violating a law against “lascivious exhibition” before people younger than 16. It’s unclear how the law is typically enforced. The complaint said the performers wore “sexually suggesting clothing and prosthetic female genitalia” and simulated sex acts.

As a result, regulators said they were stripping the Hyatt Regency of its alcohol license. The hotel has 21 days to request a hearing and can keep selling alcohol until a final decision is made, Insider’s Kimberly Leonard reported.


Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, expressed support for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s move.

“Sexually explicit content is not appropriate to display to children and doing so violates Florida law,” Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary, previously told Leonard. “Governor DeSantis stands up for the innocence of children in the classroom and throughout Florida.”

A representative for DeSantis did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.

A ‘chilling effect’ in the state

Legal experts said the action violates free speech principles and may not hold up if the hotel appeals the decision, but could still ultimately have a lasting effect on drag performances in Florida — and score DeSantis political points heading into a potential 2024 presidential run.

“A fundamental tenet of the First Amendment is that the government should not punish people simply because it disapproves of the content of their speech,” Kate Ruane of PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group, previously told Insider. “Yet this decision will harm a business simply because it supported speech the government doesn’t like.”

Doron Kalir, a professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, told Insider it was a “gross intervention” by the DeSantis administration in regards to freedom of speech and expression, noting the show was recommended for adults and that minors needed to be with an adult.

He noted the complaint said kids younger than 16 were present at the show, but the evidence offered included an “indiscernible picture” of what appears to be a mom with her daughter, whose age is unclear. There was also no assertion that minors were admitted without an adult.

However, he said that while challenges to a law passed last year that banned instruction about gender and sexual orientation — dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — make their way through the courts, it’s unclear where judges will stand on these issues.

Even if the state doesn’t end up actively pursuing the revocation of the liquor license, the intended effect may have already been achieved.

“It’s not so much the legal issue as the chilling effect,” Kalir said, adding that the “chilling effect” is a term used in First Amendment law to describe an action taken that deters legal speech and expression with the threat of legal action.

“The government sometimes interferes, even if they know they’re going to lose, to deter future conduct similar to that,” he said, adding: “The very fact they filed this complaint will cause other venues to pause before they allow drag shows to go forward.”

Deterring drag shows from occurring falls in line with the talking points of many prominent conservative figures, who view drag shows as harmful to children, even if might seem out of step with their “small government” values, he said.

In addition to deterring shows, the headlines alone that credit DeSantis’s administration with going up against a hotel that hosted a drag show could be enough to win over some in the Republican base.

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