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Is Ron DeSantis Violating Disney's Right to Free Speech?

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. on May 03, 2022 10:55 AM

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial "Don't Say Gay" bill, which bans schools from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, the Walt Disney corporation initially stayed on the sidelines.

Facing mounting pressure from employees at Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, Disney released the following statement on March 28:

"Florida's HB 1557, also known as the 'Don't Say Gay' bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law. Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that. We are dedicated to standing up for the rights and safety of LGBTQ+ members of the Disney family, as well as the LBGTQ+ community in Florida and across the country."

On April 22, 2022, in what many view as a retaliatory move, DeSantis signed a law passed by the Florida legislature revoking the self-governing status that Disney has held in Florida for over 50 years. Activists and political observers are arguing that Florida's step in terminating Disney's special district is a clear violation of the corporation's First Amendment right to free speech.

What Is Free Speech?

The First Amendment to the Constitution states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

There are instances, however, where a government can regulate speech. Those include:

  • "Fighting words," meaning threats or inciting violence
  • Lying, slander, and defamation
  • Obscenities
  • Speech made as a student or employee
  • The time, place, and manner of the speech

When the federal government or a state government makes a law, it cannot restrict your freedom of speech, except in the case of instances listed above, nor can it punish you in retaliation for that speech.

Do Corporations Have 1st Amendment Protections?

Recent court cases recognize that corporations enjoy the same freedom of speech protections as private citizens. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reinforced that corporations spending money on political campaigns is protected free speech. And in 2014's Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. case, the Supreme Court held that a corporation can express religious beliefs protected under the First Amendment.

Does Disney Have a Case?

If Disney files a lawsuit accusing the Florida government of violating its First Amendment rights, will the company be successful? It may have to show that the law was a punitive response to their public statements on the "Don't Say Gay" bill. While it is challenging to prove legislative intent, several Florida lawmakers, especially DeSantis, made their thoughts known about Disney expressing political opinions.

During the bill signing ceremony revoking Disney's special self-governing district, DeSantis said, "You're a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you're gonna marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state. We view that as a provocation, and we're going to fight back against that." The Walt Disney World resort in Florida, however, does employ tens of thousands of people and is the world's top tourist attraction.

Florida lawmakers may correctly claim that Disney does not have a "right" to an autonomous district. However, if Disney does decide to sue the state, Florida will need to prove that the timing of this measure was a constitutional act and not in response to Disney's public statements against Florida.

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