Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis Confirms (Again) That His Attack on Disney Was Political Retribution

He either doesn't understand or won't admit why this violates the First Amendment.


It's been less than three weeks since The Walt Disney Company sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over what it claims is an unconstitutional "campaign of government retaliation" personally directed by DeSantis.

And in a newly published interview, DeSantis seems to admit that's pretty much exactly what happened.

"When Disney first came out against the bill [H.B. 1557]…people in the legislature started floating this idea of going after Reedy Creek," DeSantis told The American Conservative's Bradley Devlin in an interview published Monday by the right-leaning publication.

That bill—dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill by the media—forbade the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school classrooms (a ban that has more recently been expanded to include all public schools in Florida). In response to Disney's criticism of the bill, DeSantis began a monthslong crusade against the company and the Reedy Creek Improvement District, the special governing jurisdiction which contains Disney's Florida theme parks and associated properties. That effort culminated, for now, in DeSantis appointing a new board to oversee the zone and Disney's subsequent lawsuit alleging targeted political persecution.

In the new interview, DeSantis initially tries to pass off the idea as having originated with unnamed members of the state Legislature. Later, he argues that "Disney had fallen out of favor with our base" and become "unpopular with a lot of the legislators."

But the interview leaves little doubt about who was leading the effort. Devlin writes that, after Disney criticized the bill's passage, DeSantis "and his team" started digging into the company. Later, after the initial effort to simply repeal the Reedy Creek district nearly collapsed amid a series of legal and fiscal complications, DeSantis talks about guiding the process that ended with the state seizing control of the board that runs Reedy Creek.

Through it all, DeSantis tries to frame the Reedy Creek issue as a unique example of corporate welfare. But there are hundreds of similar special improvement districts scattered across Florida. Only one of them is under attack by DeSantis—and it's no coincidence that it is the district run by a corporation that's engaged in a political spat with the governor.

Indeed, DeSantis has openly bragged about engaging in political retribution against Disney, including in his recently published book. The 77-page complaint filed by the company last month is littered with examples of the governor and his political allies confirming that Disney was a singular and politically motivated target.

Asked about Disney's lawsuit alleging that political retribution, DeSantis says it misses the mark. "I mean, the idea you have a First Amendment right to corporate welfare or having a local government that you basically control with no accountability is ridiculous," he says. The attempt to take control of Reedy Creek did not "touch Disney's free speech rights," did not "pull ABC's broadcast license," and did not remove Disney's "ability to speak out," DeSantis argues.

But that's a deliberate misunderstanding of what the lawsuit claims. Disney isn't alleging that DeSantis directly threatened the company's right to broadcast its content. Nevertheless, DeSantis deliberately revoking Disney's self-governing status is still an unconstitutional violation of the company's right to free speech and due process, the company alleges—as the Supreme Court has consistently held.

Later in the same American Conservative piece, Oren Cass helpfully clarifies the situation.

"The interesting thing about the Disney example is that DeSantis wasn't going after Disney because Disney was being woke," says Cass, executive director of American Compass, a right-wing think tank. "What elicited response was Disney's decision to try to get involved in the political process."

Exactly. And here's the thing: The individuals who form a corporation have the right to get involved in the political process—and to do so without the threat of political retribution from elected and appointed government officials. The right to free speech does not end at the boardroom door.

"If the government could deny a benefit to a person because of his constitutionally protected speech or associations, his exercise of those freedoms would in effect be penalized and inhibited," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion of a 1996 Supreme Court case that dealt with a very similar situation: a government attempting to revoke a government-granted privileged in response to the owner of a towing company exercising his free speech rights.

"Such interference with constitutional rights is impermissible," Kennedy concluded.

Unfortunately, that sort of interference with constitutional rights is increasingly being cheered on the political right. Cass tells The American Conservative that long-held conservative principles about the free speech rights of corporations (and the people who run them) need "rethinking." Elsewhere in the piece, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts lauds DeSantis for the governor's willingness to wield the power of the state against private businesses.

"This is our moment to demand that our politicians use the power they have. This is the moment for us to demand of companies, whether they're Google, or Facebook, or Disney, that you listen to us, rather than ram down our throats and into our own families all of the garbage that you've been pushing on us," Roberts tells Devlin. "This is our time to demand that you do what we say. And it's glorious."

There may never be a more concise and apt description of what Reason's Stephanie Slade calls "will-to-power conservatism" than those few sentences. And, coming from the president of the Heritage Foundation, those words carry extra weight. This is no longer a fringe idea within the conservative milieu; it is the viewpoint of the Republican establishment and the calling card of one of the leading Republican governors in the country.

The courts will have the final say on the legal and constitutional elements of DeSantis' assault on Disney and Reedy Creek. Politically, however, DeSantis is quick to denounce those who disagree with his approach. "I think too many people on the right have basically been corporatists over the years," he tells The American Conservative.

But the rights of private entities—individuals, corporations, whatever—are fundamental to a well-functioning society. Without strict limits on the realms where politics can intrude, there will be no realms into which politics does not intrude, and the breaking down of those barriers should not be cheered.

Saying so isn't corporatism, it's constitutionalism—something that used to matter to leading conservatives.