Entitled Disney Flexes its Muscles, and Is Offended When DeSantis Responds

Private companies do not have a constitutional right to governmentally-conferred special favors

This piece is one side of the argument in our two-post debate on Ron DeSantis’s feud with Disney. You can find the argument on the other side, written by Samuel R. Staley, here.

Like a lot of corporate giants these days, The Walt Disney Company weighed in on behalf of progressive politics and got burned.

The California-based behemoth tried to sink Governor Ron DeSantis’s 2022 bill limiting gender-provocative content in Florida schools. The soon-to-be-reelected DeSantis fought back. He moved to withdraw the special municipal district that Florida’s Legislature had gifted to Disney back in the 1960s—when Disney was a bipartisan family-friendly favorite.

Entitled Disney and its allies cried foul: how dare DeSantis respond politically to Disney’s foray into politics? DeSantis and the Florida legislature had no right to limit Disney’s corporate free speech, they argued, and besides, wasn’t he deploying Big Government against private business, which conservatives aren’t supposed to do?

The tit-for-tat has grown increasingly complicated. Authorized by the legislature, DeSantis moved to appoint a new majority of board members to the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Under the prior law dating from 1967, Disney appointed the board members, and they in turn ran the special District, which effectively gave Disney its own county government—enabling the company to dictate the rules and taxes governing its properties southwest of Orlando.

But just before DeSantis’s new board took control, Disney amended the charter of the District so that it could not be modified until “21 years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England living as of the date of this declaration.” The point of this contractual maneuver—which sounds like it comes straight out of a Disney movie script—was to tighten Disney’s grip to outlast DeSantis. The Florida legislature moved to enact legislation that would invalidate Disney’s “King Charles maneuver.” Suits and countersuits have ensued. It’s not yet clear how it will fall out.

This episode may not be either DeSantis’s or Disney’s finest hour. But rise above the finicky details, and you can ask: what’s really at stake here?

Ron DeSantis’s 2022 reelection campaign focused on education (among other things). Public schools, he argued, shouldn’t override parents’ values, and public classrooms should focus on basic learning rather than ideological formation about sex. His landslide reelection seemed to vindicate his legislation limiting such discussions in the K-3 public classroom.

The media artfully portrayed the law as “Don’t Say Gay.” Accepting this characterization, Disney publicly opposed the law, as it had a right to do.

DeSantis argued, in effect, that most Floridians didn’t think the youngest and most impressionable schoolchildren should be drawn into classroom discussions about gender identity. Does a kindergartner really need to understand the contemporary meaning of the word “gay”? Does a third-grader really need to consider the idea that boys could be girls or that mommies could be daddies?

The Florida legislature has since extended the gender-ideology-free zone up through 12th grade. This may have been a mistake. However, it was the legislature’s initial enactment affecting only kindergarten to third grade that triggered Disney’s ire. And DeSantis responded by clawing back Disney’s privileges.

The fact is that nobody has a constitutional right—or a natural property right—to enjoy a governmentally-conferred special district. Everybody knows that government largesse comes with strings attached. There is no such thing as a no-strings government benefit.

In this case, Florida had conferred not money, but power, when it granted Disney control over Reedy Creek. But whether the government is dispensing money or power, the effect is the same: They who live by government favors, die by government favors.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. This is exactly how the Biden administration (like Obama’s earlier) is pressing both public and private colleges to conform to progressive gender doctrines, redefining the meaning of “no discrimination by sex” to include the new range of gender identities.

Government largesse comes with strings attached; are the strings only allowed to pull in one direction?

Did Florida violate the Disney company’s rights? No. Disney retains its property rights as a landowner, and its free-speech rights. It can continue to adhere, as fully as it chooses, to the conceptual apparatus of progressive gender theory. It can say whatever it wants about pending legislation in Florida or elsewhere. If DeSantis succeeds, Disney will simply be unable to do so from the privileged special platform granted by the state.

Of course, one could frame DeSantis’s moves against Disney as “retaliation.” But it would be just as accurate to frame Disney’s public efforts to thwart DeSantis’s original legislation as retaliation against him for holding a view of human nature and sexuality that is at odds with Disney’s view.

Actually, it would be fairer all-round to say that progressive educators reacted against an older cultural conservatism when they began introducing gender issues into public school classrooms. Florida voters, through DeSantis, reacted against that effort. Disney in turn reacted against that. Every political action invites a response and a chain of consequences.

Did DeSantis betray his conservative principles by deploying “Big Government”? Not necessarily. From DeSantis’s point of view, the introduction of gender ideology concepts into the public school classroom was precisely an instance of government power being deployed to displace the primacy of parents; indeed it was government power being deployed against those least able to understand or resist its consciousness-shaping effects.

Arguably, Disney wanted to expand government power in the classroom; DeSantis wanted to limit it.

But the real heart of the problem, barely acknowledged by either side, is the extent of government involvement in the first place.

If Disney had not become reliant on a special favor conferred by the Florida government, it would not have been at risk of having the special favor taken away. If government didn’t own the schools, their curriculum would not be subject to the political winds.

It is highly unlikely that Florida is ready to privatize its schools. That stubborn political fact could change. Let’s hope it does.

Meanwhile, a governor and legislature are obligated to make sure parents are not forced to pay taxes to support classroom content they consider harmful to children. Safeguarding parental rights does not violate anyone else’s rights.

The same logic holds true where Governor DeSantis is accused of “censorship” by insisting on guidelines that limit what books the taxpayers of Florida will pay to put in the hands of schoolchildren. Books are not being “banned” when the government declines to pay for them while they remain fully available to the public. But more profoundly, one must ask why taxpayers need to be paying for books in the first place.

Because of Disney and DeSantis, the spotlight is on Florida. But how does all this bear on DeSantis’s presidential aspirations?

The presidency is not a governorship. States retain broad plenary powers through the Tenth Amendment so long as they don’t violate constitutionally protected individual rights of their citizens. By contrast, the federal government may only exercise powers enumerated in the Constitution (primarily in Article I). This difference is a centerpiece of America’s constitutionally limited government.

It might help Ron DeSantis’s cause to make plain he understands there are things he can do at the state level that he cannot, and won’t try to do, at the federal level. People are wondering.

But back to Florida for now: the state is legally entitled to shape its public classrooms, and also to pull the plug on the special favor it had earlier granted to Disney. DeSantis’s effort to rescind Disney’s power over Reedy Creek does not violate Disney’s rights. Of course, DeSantis may be imprudent to antagonize wealthy and powerful private interests in his state. Or maybe not. 

Graham H. Walker is President of the Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy.
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