DeSantis’ Cartoon Villainy Gives Disney’s Lawsuit a Clear Path to Victory

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The governor’s authoritarian style means he’s always admitted anti-gay revenge was the goal.

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis decided to go after Disney last spring for opposing his “Don’t Say Gay” law, he was making it an example. He chose a powerful, high profile target that had disagreed with his policy preferences, and he punished that company for crossing him. In doing so, he sent a clear warning to other companies: Disagree and I will come knocking. If he was willing to attack Disney, one of the state’s largest employers and a major tax source, no business was safe.

This is an authoritarian tactic. Authoritarian leaders use various means to control the private sector to suppress dissent and bring a powerful segment of society under their sway. But in order to make an example of Disney, DeSantis had to be clear that Disney was suffering as a direct result of speaking out against him.

Unfortunately for DeSantis, that kind of retaliation against speech is a violation of the First Amendment. When Disney finally decided to fire back on Wednesday by filing a suit against DeSantis, the governor had spent over a year doing the company the favor by making myriad comments explaining he was seeking revenge against Disney, strengthening its legal hand. As Disney predicted in its complaint, “This is as clear a case of retaliation as this Court is ever likely to see.”

“It is a violation of the First Amendment for the government to punish a corporation because of the company’s expressed viewpoints on political issues,” Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA School of Law and the author of We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights told Mother Jones a year ago when DeSantis first passed legislation targeting Disney for retribution.  

As Republican Mitt Romney famously reminded Iowans during his 2012 presidential campaign, “Corporations are people.” And for many legal purposes, he was right. Over the last century, the Supreme Court has extended civil rights to corporate entities, a trend Republicans and the conservative movement generally cheered. In 2010, the Supreme Court granted them the right to spend money to influence elections, ruling that was a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. In 2014, the justices decided that some corporations also have religious rights.

The expansion of corporate civil rights has had harmful and undemocratic consequences, such as flooding elections with money or allowing businesses to deny reproductive health care to employees. But it has also left corporations with more tools to fight authoritarian meddling. This is what we are seeing now in Florida. “This whole situation highlights one of the hidden benefits of recognizing corporations to have rights,” Winkler explained, “that corporate rights also serve as a check on government tyranny.”

Disney’s suit against DeSantis is replete with examples of DeSantis and his allies being explicit about launching a campaign of revenge over Disney’s political speech. The first step in that retaliation was passage of a law last April to sunset the special tax district that Disney had long enjoyed. “‘You shouldn’t get involved’,” DeSantis once publicly  recalled warning the company. “‘It’s not going to work out well for you.’” After Disney released a statement saying it would work to repeal the “Don’t Say Gay” law, DeSantis said the company had “crossed a line,” and vowed “to make sure we’re fighting back.” Disney’s opposition to the law was “a provocation and we are going to fight back against that,” DeSantis said upon signing the legislation.

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