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First Amendment Battle: Disney Takes on Governor DeSantis in Court

Disney Lawsuit Claims Florida Governor Used State Power to Silence Criticism

Imagine a prison near the Magic Kingdom – this strange concept may come to life if Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, gets what he wants. This idea is just one of the many proposals that he has recently made in response to Disney’s opposition to his political agenda. While the proposition of a prison might seem like a tongue-in-cheek comment, the governor’s other reprisals against Disney have been quite serious. Now, the company is suing DeSantis, claiming that he has violated their First Amendment rights.

The conflict began in March 2022 when the Florida legislature was close to passing the Parental Rights in Education bill, which has been nicknamed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill by its critics. This bill, now a law, prohibits public schools from teaching students about sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3. Disney joined the national debate on this issue, stating that they ‘will not stand for discrimination in any form’ and promised to ‘oppose any legislation that infringes on basic human rights’. After the bill became law, Disney declared that their goal was to see the law repealed or struck down by the courts.

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Essentially, Disney exercised its First Amendment right to criticize government action, a right shared by every individual and company in the United States. However, Governor DeSantis did not appreciate this dissent.

In an attempt to retaliate, DeSantis urged the Florida legislature to sunset the Reedy Creek Improvement District – a special tax district that has allowed Disney to govern the area surrounding its theme park complex for the past 50 years. Eventually, the legislature opted to rename the district and place it under the control of a new board, handpicked by DeSantis himself. Before losing control, the Disney-controlled board approved a new development contract and several restrictive covenants, only to have these agreements voided by the new board. This action was the final straw for Disney, who filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, First Amendment violations.

It is true that Florida is under no obligation to allow Disney to maintain its self-governing status indefinitely, but the reasoning behind the revocation is quite important.

Two key points must be considered here. Firstly, Disney has the same First Amendment right to voice their opinions on public issues as any individual does. Secondly, the First Amendment forbids the government from withholding benefits as a punishment for protected speech. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld this principle in a variety of situations.

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Indeed, the government can make decisions based on other reasons, such as firing an employee for a lack of productivity or removing a tax break that creates negative incentives. It is crucial that these decisions are not influenced by whether or not someone dared to disagree with a politician.

So, what was the driving force behind the government’s efforts to dismantle the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which had been in existence since 1967 and was one of 1,800 special tax districts in the state? The answer lies in Disney’s vocal opposition to a law backed by the governor.

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Governor DeSantis himself seems to openly admit that his motive was retaliation. After Disney expressed their disapproval of the Parental Rights in Education bill, he stated, ‘Disney and other woke corporations won’t get away with peddling their unchecked pressure campaigns any longer.’ DeSantis also revealed that he had warned Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek not to enter the debate surrounding the bill, saying, ‘It’s not going to work out well for you.’

Following Disney’s call for the law’s repeal, DeSantis accused the company of having ‘crossed the line.’ In a recent op-ed, he wrote, ‘Leaders must stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda.’ DeSantis’ allies in the Florida legislature echoed his sentiments, making it clear that the law stripping Disney of its self-governing status was a form of retaliation.

However, DeSantis has not softened his stance in light of the lawsuit. In fact, he claims to have successfully silenced Disney on this issue. ‘Since our skirmish last year, Disney has not been involved in any of those issues,’ DeSantis stated, adding, ‘They have not made a peep. That ultimately is the most important—that Disney is not allowed to pervert the system to the detriment of Floridians.’

Despite criticizing the arrangement between Florida and Disney as ‘the most egregious type of corporate welfare,’ DeSantis may find it difficult to convince the court that Disney’s protected speech wasn’t a major factor in the decision to revoke the tax district.

This case isn’t the first time Governor DeSantis has encountered First Amendment issues. In 2021, a federal court halted enforcement of a Florida law he supported that would violate social media companies’ rights to control what speech appears on their platforms, and that decision was upheld on appeal. More recently, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) successfully sued Florida to stop the enforcement of the Stop WOKE Act, which unconstitutionally restricts how public university faculty discuss race and sex in the classroom.

Even those who believe Disney has become too ‘woke’ should be concerned about a political leader’s willingness to use state power to suppress dissent and the precedent it sets. Today, it may be Disney facing repercussions for expressing a political opinion, but tomorrow it could be Chick-fil-A, Bass Pro Shops, or an unknown small business or individual. The freedom to speak should not depend on which side of the culture war someone is on, or if they are willing to appease a politician.

When people risk losing their jobs or facing financial hardships for criticizing government officials and policies, the likely result is self-censorship. This loss of voices benefits those in power by skewing the public discourse in their favor, causing lasting harm to our democracy. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, ‘At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern.’ If Disney’s lawsuit is successful, it will serve as a powerful reminder that a politician’s desire to dominate a culture war cannot override the First Amendment.

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