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Can Ron DeSantis Control Disney's Content?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

Move over, Mickey. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claims: "There is a new sheriff in town."

Once Upon A Time

Last year the Florida governor was upset that the Disney's CEO Bob Chapek criticized his “Parental Rights In Education Act." Dubbed by critics as the "Don't Say Gay" bill, the act limits gender identity and sexual orientation discussion in elementary schools from kindergarten to third grade. Disney is a long-time Florida resident and benefactor of a self-governing special tax district named the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

The Empire Strikes Back

In April 2022, in what was clearly viewed as a retaliatory move, the Florida legislature revoked Walt Disney World's status allowing the massive tourist attraction to handle its own zoning, fire protection, security, and utilities in the Orlando area. They also had the power to issue bonds and raise taxes. DeSantis claimed at the time that Disney World should not have special rights to govern itself, despite a GOP governor giving them the approval over 50 years ago.

His actions raised questions of government infringement on free speech. The Walt Disney Company is a corporation, and recent Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. hold that corporations have a right to free speech. Disney might claim that DeSantis's stripping Disney of their self-governing district was punishment for their speech. Disney, however, has not raised a legal challenge.

More recently, in February 2023, DeSantis signed a bill in Lake Buena Vista — a city inside the Reedy Creek Improvement District — “ending the corporate kingdom" giving him the power over the district and the ability to appoint a five-member board to run the district, now called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

DeSantis nominated several prominent Florida Republicans to the new board, including Martin Garcia, a donor who contributed $50,000 to DeSantis' reelection campaign, and Bridget Ziegler, co-founder of the conservative organization Moms for Liberty, who is also married to the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

In what some view as a threat to control Disney's content, DeSantis said at the bill signing: "I think all of these board members very much would like to see the type of entertainment that all families can appreciate."

The concern is that with control of Disney's district, the board members may try to influence their own agendas of what content Disney can promote.

Will Disney's Creative Control Be Frozen?

Government, with some exceptions, cannot regulate speech or content.

According to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech." However, legislators can restrict the time, place, and manner of speech. And laws must be "narrowly tailored" and content-neutral, meaning government can't prohibit a type of speech or particular viewpoint.

For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may prevent indecent or obscene content from being broadcast at certain times to protect children, but they cannot ban it outright.

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board members do not have the authority to control Disney's content. Disney is a much bigger company than just Disney World, and the new board has no authority over the broader corporation's affairs regarding movies and TV shows, which are not produced at the park. And attempts to do so may be viewed as a violation of Disney's right to freedom of speech.

Additionally, Disney World may retain some sway as the largest employer of Central Florida taxpayers. And Disney operates other theme parks in California, France, China, and Japan, where Disney does not have a special self-governing status. Furthermore, there are other Florida theme parks that do not operate with their own government.

As for DeSantis believing he can control Disney's content? Well, that is just plain Goofy.

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