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“DeSantis vs. Disney”: Using the First Amendment to Fight Fascism

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

Who picks a fight with a mouse? No, that is not the title of a new children’s book by Laura Numeroff, author of the iconic book, If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, but the reality of a “war” created by the fascist retaliatory actions against constitutionally protected free speech. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a Disney adult, one may say that my loyalty was with the Walt Disney Company from day one - it was. However, to be clear, my loyalty will always side with the rights provided to all Americans by the Constitution of the United States. According to the 2021 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, 74% of adults correctly named freedom of speech a protected right under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. However, most people may need to be told that corporations, too, are covered under the same protections following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Grosjean v. American Press Co. in 1936. Moreover, someone should have educated Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican-controlled legislator before going toe to toe with Mickey Mouse. Aligned with the current decreasing polling number and disdain from members of the Republican party, whom he is a part of, Governor DeSantis’ blatant retaliatory actions towards the Walt Disney Company are an unconstitutional government overreach and “sounds not just anti-business, but it sounds anti-Florida.”

As one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved companies, the Walt Disney Company has a long-standing history of supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion - not just in its corporate ecosystem but in its theme parks, media, and consumer products. Though handled poorly by then Disney CEO Bob Chapek, the Walt Disney Company opposed Florida’s discriminatory House Bill 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, which restricts teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in schools. In turn, the bill silences the voices of LGBTQ+ people, leaving families, students, and faculty wondering what it means to comply with the law's ambiguity. Like the bill's silenced voices, Governor DeSantis took a stance in the hopes of punishing the Walt Disney Company for exercising its constitutional right to free speech. He vowed that Disney had “crossed the line” and pledged “to make sure we’re fighting back” following a call with Chapek and a subsequent press release opposing the bill. In an apparent attempt to coerce or intimidate the Walt Disney Company into silence, he actively began to devise a plan to reevaluate, dissolve, and eventually replace the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a special local governing jurisdiction for the 25,000 acres of land occupied in Orlando. Though, thanks to his showboating and negligence, Governor DeSantis laid the groundwork for the future lawsuit that would be filed against him and members of the Florida government in April 2023. Though many have criticized both parties for the constant back and forth of this “war,” legal scholar and the Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, Rebecca Tushnet, in an interview with Harvard Law Today, analyzes the lawsuit stating that “Disney’s claim of retaliation are strong” as “government acts... can’t be taken if they are in retaliation for protected speech.” As one of the largest taxpayers, single employer, and fifty-year investment into the state of Florida, the coordinated attack on the Walt Disney Company is not just a violation of the First Amendment rights that are provided to the company but a threat to the fundamental democratic principles the country was founded on. The Republican-led trend of seeking to silence voices that offer an opposing viewpoint is a dangerous slippery slope and nothing more than textbook fascism. As this “war” is still ongoing and entering litigation, we must not leave this fight to protect the First Amendment against fascism to corporations or politicians to handle. We, as American citizens, must play our part in the democratic process if we hope to effect real change in our county. Though an individual may not have the same resources to take a stand against a state’s fascist actions like the Walt Disney Company, a call to our elected officials, protesting injustice, and, most importantly, a vote can change tomorrow, today. Remember, “In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.”


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