Republicans in Florida and Washington, DC are vowing to seek retribution against Disney for belatedly opposing Florida's "Parental Rights in Education" legislation, also known as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. The bill prohibits "instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3." This means teachers who acknowledge that some children have same-sex parents could subject their school to litigation. These elected officials say they will use state power to punish Disney for expressing political views that diverge from their own.
The politicians issuing these threats say they are justified because Disney has engaged in "woke corporate actions." Even if this were true, it is an abuse of power for elected officials to penalize corporations for failing to support a particular social agenda.
But it is not true. Disney is not "woke."
Just a month ago, Disney CEO Bob Chapek sent a memo to Disney staff explaining why the company would not issue "a public statement condemning" the "Don't Say Gay" bill. Chapek argued that "corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds." And he said he was concerned that a statement from Disney would be "counterproductive and undermine more effective ways to achieve change." Chapek said the "Don't Say Gay" bill was just "one bill" in "one state" and Disney should focus on creating "inspiring content."
Chapek also acknowledged that Disney had made donations to supporters of the legislation ($300,000 since 2020) but only promised to "review" its criteria for political contributions.
Critically, that is all Disney said until after the Florida Senate passed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by a narrow 3-vote margin, 22 to 17, on March 8. Had Disney, one of the most powerful forces in Florida politics, publicly opposed the legislation prior to the vote, it may have turned out differently. Instead, the bill went to the desk of Governor Ron DeSantis (R), a strong supporter of the legislation.
On March 9, Chapek announced that Disney was "opposed to the bill from the outset" but "chose not to take a public position on it because we thought we could be more effective working behind-the-scenes." Facing protests from Disney employees and customers, however, Chapek said he called "DeSantis this morning to express our disappointment and concern that if the legislation becomes law."
But it was already much too late. DeSantis made clear that he would be signing the bill imminently. On March 11, Chapek issued another statement saying the company would pause all political donations in Florida and work to "combat similar legislation in other states." Many states have introduced similar anti-LGBTQ legislation but Disney has refused to weigh in on specific legislation, even in states where Disney has a large presence. Instead, it has posted general statements on social media.
DeSantis signed the legislation on March 28. Disney issued a statement in response saying that it would work to have "law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts." Repeal is fanciful and it is unclear what, if anything Disney has done to support litigation against the law. But Republican officials at the state and national level are still seeking revenge against Disney.
Since 1967, Florida has granted Disney unusual autonomy in the area surrounding Walt Disney World, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Within this area, the company can provide emergency services and even levy taxes.
It's an open question whether Disney should have these powers. But DeSantis and other politicians are threatening to repeal the 1967 Reedy Creek Improvement Act for belatedly opposing their efforts to stigmatize LGBTQ students in Florida schools.
In a March 31 press conference, DeSantis said that Disney's opposition to the "Don't Say Gay" legislation had "alienated a lot of people." As a result, the company's "political influence… has dissipated." DeSantis said he would now support the repeal of any "special privileges in law" granted to Disney.
Florida Representative Spencer Roach (R) said on March 30 that he was meeting with "fellow legislators to discuss a repeal of the 1967 Reedy Creek Improvement Act." Roach was very clear about his motivations. "If Disney wants to embrace woke ideology, it seems fitting that they should be regulated by Orange County," Roach said.
On April 7, Congressman Jim Banks (R-IN) and 16 other members of Congress, wrote to Chapek and told them they would not support an extension of the copyright for Mickey Mouse. Without Congressional action, the copyright for Disney's iconic mascot will expire in January 2024.
Whether copyrights should be repeatedly extended is debatable. But the letter from 17 elected officials makes clear their opposition is not grounded in their views of copyright policy. Rather, they say they oppose the copyright extension because of Disney's "public opposition to Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act."
The members of Congress that signed the letter also make clear that the new Florida law is part of a broader agenda to erase LGBTQ people and other diverse identities. The authors of the letter object to Disney's plans to include more LGBTQ characters in the company's stories and an alleged increase in the number of staff that work in Disney's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department. They say all this is proof that Disney is "purposefully influencing small children with their political and sexual agenda."
Banks expanded on his views during a recent appearance on Fox News' Laura Ingraham:
At the end of the day, we take our kids to Disney World for family vacation, not indoctrination… [I]f they're going to attack the American laws that are being put in place by duly elected governors and representatives at the state level, then they don't… deserve all the special American laws and protections that are granted to their companies.
This objection, however, appears limited to circumstances when corporations oppose policies that Banks and other Republicans support. When Disney and hundreds of other companies spent millions through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to defeat the Build Back Better proposal, Banks raised no objections.
A strategy of deterrence
DeSantis, Banks, and others are not threatening Disney because Disney has taken effective action against Florida's legislation to stigmatize LGBTQ people. Rather, they are seeking to gain leverage over Disney to deter them from taking steps that could make a difference.
What would effective action look like? In 2016, both houses of the Georgia legislature passed a law that would have allowed some businesses to deny services to LGBTQ people. Disney's CEO at the time, Bob Iger, said the company would no longer film movies in the state if it was signed into law. "Disney and Marvel are inclusive companies, and although we have had great experiences filming in Georgia, we will plan to take our business elsewhere should any legislation allowing discriminatory practices be signed into state law," the company said. Georgia's Governor in 2016, Nathan Deal (R), vetoed the legislation.