In a move that was as easy to spot coming as Cinderella’s castle at Disney World, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been sued by Mickey Mouse. In a new federal lawsuit, the Walt Disney Corporation alleges DeSantis waged a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power” against the company and “orchestrated at every step” a crusade meant to punish Disney for its political views.
I have a funny feeling the Mouse has very good First Amendment lawyers. https://t.co/MkLToUebms
— Patrick Hedger (@PatHedger18) April 26, 2023
I predicted such a lawsuit would transpire last year when DeSantis first began working to target the company after it expressed opposition to the Republican-backed education legislation that critics, arguably inaccurately, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in the state. Whatever one thinks of that controversial legislation, there is no “woke” exception to the First Amendment, and a sitting politician using the government to punish a company in retaliation for its political beliefs is a pretty overt constitutional violation.
As I wrote when the DeSantis vs. Disney feud first started, “In a famous case called O’Hare Truck Service, Inc. v. City of Northlake, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that local governments cannot revoke benefits—even privileges businesses have no inherent right to—in retaliation for a company’s political opposition.”
DeSantis’ camp seems to be unfamiliar with or otherwise unwilling to acknowledge this precedent. In a statement they said the following:
On Disney’s recently filed lawsuit: pic.twitter.com/EEtPcEAs4j
— Jeremy Redfern (@JeremyRedfernFL) April 26, 2023
But it seems the threat to take away Disney’s special district after the company spoke out against legislation and promised to revoke donations to Republican lawmakers very much did violate not one but two free speech protections.
According to Ari Cohn, a First Amendment and defamation attorney, “Disney’s complaint sets out, in damning clarity, what was already obvious: Ron DeSantis was peeved that Disney spoke out against a piece of his legislation, and set out on the warpath to get retribution.”
DeSantis has continued to lampoon Disney in the media, worked to take over the administration of their district with his supporters, and even (somewhat jokingly?) threatened to build a new state prison next to the park. In their lawsuit the company claims these actions have threatened the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs.
“The government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional,” Disney stated.
This seems hard to deny—no matter what one’s opinions on the parties involved.
As Cohn went on to point out, “Anyone who claims to care about free speech should be deeply troubled by a government explicitly retaliating against anyone for their political advocacy—whether one agrees with it or not. The right to speak about or against government action is sacrosanct, and every attempt by the government to undermine that right opens the door for more of the same (and sometimes in ways you might not like as much). That some of Florida’s loudest cheerleaders have been quick to accuse government (or private platforms) of censorship when they agree with the speech just demonstrates how fundamentally disingenuous their alleged principles are.”
One would think Disney could easily win this lawsuit (as they should), Cohn warned this might not be so easy.
“While it’s obvious that Florida’s actions were retaliation against speech the government didn’t like, it’s not the easiest case to win,” Cohn said.
“Courts are often hesitant to examine the motivation behind legislation that doesn’t prohibit or regulate expression on its face. It’s difficult to say whether the chilling effect alleged by Disney will get them over all the hurdles—but if there’s a case in which that might happen, it’s hard to think of a more obvious set of facts,” he continued.
Whatever the outcome, these actions set an incredibly sinister precedent of using the government and all its might to attack businesses for merely expressing beliefs in contrast to the ruling party of where they operate. That’s not how free, capitalist countries operate.
“A DeSantis win would not mean that the First Amendment has remained unscathed; it would mean that legislators around the country have a roadmap for punishing speech critical of the government. Nobody should want that,” Cohn said. “And whatever the ultimate resolution of the case, one thing is clear: the First Amendment has officially retired in Florida.”
That’s a hard pill to swallow, but given the actions of DeSantis, and other actions the legislature has taken against free speech online, it’s clear the First Amendment is very much under siege in the Sunshine State.
Not only were DeSantis’ actions wildly outside the bounds for anyone who believes in a limited government and free market. They also mark a detrimental turn within the GOP. The party, in complete desperation to win a culture war it’s currently badly losing, has become unmoored from the guiding principles it used to champion.
Increasingly, we see Republicans who are eager to expand the government’s power and weaponize it against their political enemies. We see them resorting to the same authoritarian tactics and busy-body policies that have turned so many off from the Left. And I don’t know why I have to be the one to explain the obvious here, but they aren’t going to win a culture war by adopting the same big government ideas that have eroded the Democrats with a side of cultural authoritarianism to boot. Hard pass, guys.
There is no market for big government in the bedroom and in the bank account. Or if there is, it is rapidly dying out. If Republicans want to win the culture war, they should work to get the government out of the culture, period.