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Disney v. DeSantis

The high-profile company threw its political weight around—and found a governor who pushed back

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a Heritage Foundation event on April 21 in Oxon Hill, Md. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon, file

Disney v. DeSantis
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Walt Disney was an American patriot. One of the first attractions walking into Disneyland California is an animatronic Abraham Lincoln. At Walt Disney World in Florida, the concept was expanded to cover all the presidents, presented in a colonial-style town hall on Liberty Square. Walt loved small town America, like his hometown Marceline, Mo., inspiration for Main Street USA. And he loved the middle-class families that were the heart of his customer base.

The Walt Disney Company today maintains those attractions, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen an overtly patriotic movie like Johnny Tremain or Davy Crockett. Instead, the company has fallen in line—if not led the parade—for modern Hollywood value. These include everything from same-sex marriage to gender fluidity to conforming its products to be acceptable in Communist-controlled China.

So it was probably inevitable that the most high-profile company in Florida would come into conflict with the most high-profile governor in America, Ron DeSantis. The current kerfuffle began a year ago, in March 2022, when Disney came out against Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education bill,” which directed public school districts in Florida to avoid curriculum that taught on controversial sex-related subjects, especially at young ages. Disney’s CEO at the time, Bob Chapek, opposed the bill in private, then in public, and put the company’s checkbook behind its stance: “Chapek said the company is ‘reassessing our approach to advocacy — including political giving in Florida and beyond.’” Translation: If you push this bill through, we will cut off any future donations from Disney to you or your political operation. Which, for the record, Disney has every right to do.

But, having threatened to play hardball, Disney quickly found itself in a game of very hard ball indeed. In the following months, DeSantis ushered through a law reconfiguring the governance for Walt Disney World, which previously had quasi-autonomy through an independent district. Chapek was out as CEO, replaced by returning CEO Bob Iger. He promised early on to de-escalate Disney’s situation, to avoid getting caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars. That lasted a hot minute, and now Disney has sued DeSantis for targeting the company based on their speech. Meanwhile, the Central Florida Tourism Board, the new municipal entity overseeing Disney World’s properties, has countersued to cancel a sweetheart deal inked moments before the new governance structure went into effect. Legal battles will go on for months, and maybe years.

Having threatened to play hardball, Disney quickly found itself in a game of very hard ball indeed.

To a certain extent, Disney has a point, best made by David French. It’s a core First Amendment value that the government does not use its position to punish people—or companies—for their political views. Government can have its own political views, and share them loudly, but it also must operate as a neutral forum where all citizens are heard and respected without retaliation.

But DeSantis has not stopped Disney from speaking—the company whose primary audience is children and their parents can proclaim to the world as loudly as it wants that it opposes a bill to protect childhood innocence and parental rights in education. If it is willing to lose customers over that stand, that’s between the management and their shareholders.

But Disney cannot be surprised if there is pushback in ruby red Florida when it loudly champions California values. DeSantis was right and Disney was wrong about the bill, which would protect young children from the sexualized content that is being pushed on them in far too many public schools. That fight shined a light on a deeper disconnect between Disney and Florida. Many Floridians realized anew the company was detached from its founder’s values and grown fat on its insulation from accountability, with special privileges and tax breaks most employers don’t enjoy. The company can’t complain when its steps into the spotlight with a controversial stand and finds the glare of public attention harsh.

And that’s doubly so when Disney started out this fight playing politics the Chicago way. The company leveraged its brand as a custodian of American family values to attack an elected official. The company cannot then act innocent and offended when the politician punches back.

We’ve seen this show before when a governor does something that prompts elite outrage, leading to boycotts, cancelled conventions and college hoops tournaments, etc. Indeed, we saw this same show play out in Georgia in 2016, when Disney released a statement opposing a religious liberty bill: “Disney and Marvel are inclusive companies, and although we have had great experiences filming in Georgia, we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law.” In Florida, DeSantis has chosen to fight back. Good for him. This story is far from over, but it is certainly worth watching.

Daniel R. Suhr

Daniel R. Suhr is an attorney who fights for freedom in courts across America. He has worked as a senior adviser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as a law clerk for Judge Diane Sykes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and at the national headquarters of the Federalist Society. He is a member of Christ Church Mequon. He is an Eagle Scout, and he loves spending time with his wife Anna and their two sons, Will and Graham, at their home near Milwaukee.

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