Last month in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis passed the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by opponents. The bill prohibits “non-age appropriate” discussion of sexuality and sexual orientation in kindergarten to third grade classrooms in Florida. It has been widely criticized by LGBTQ+ activists and organizations who claim that the bill will allow schools to discriminate against LGBTQ+ children and increase depression and suicide rates for those children. In addition, many prominent individuals and corporations have expressed their concerns about the bill and its consequences.
One such employer was The Walt Disney Company, Florida’s largest private employer, who issued a statement opposing the bill on March 9 after intense pressure to do so from their employees. Shortly after the release of this statement, the Florida Senate voted to revoke Disney World’s status as a special tax district, which has allowed the company to self-govern all operations on Disney property since 1967. Although not confirmed, many believe the sudden move against Disney by DeSantis and Florida Republicans is in direct retaliation for Disney’s stance on the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. In a fundraising email to his supporters, DeSantis said, “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy. I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state”. This is not the beginning of DeSantis’s fight with Disney, as the company clashed with lawmakers in 2020 over their proposed mandated vaccination for employees, but it is the first time Disney has faced serious consequences for disagreeing with the governor.
This argument between Disney and DeSantis brings to light two larger issues facing American democracy today. First, what is the legality of allowing a corporation to govern themselves separate from the elected governing body of a state? And second, does DeSantis’s retaliation for Disney’s dissent signify a more pernicious attempt by lawmakers to control the free speech of citizens/corporations?
Since the agreement was made in 1967, Disney has been allowed to function as its own government over its properties in the state of Florida. This means that they have their own private water system, waste management, emergency services, and more, as well as having full control over construction projects and maintenance. The company funds these services by essentially taxing themselves, saving millions of dollars in state taxes. It is a system that has worked well for both Disney and Florida residents as the separation between mouse and state saves them from paying taxes to fund theme parks they do not reside in. Furthermore, Disney is not the only company with such a provision. The state has also created hundreds of special tax districts for places such as the Daytona International Speedway and the Villages, a senior living center north of Orlando.
But are such districts democratic? While they have created mostly symbiotic relationships between government and corporation, these special tax districts also represent a distinct lack of democratic ideals. They allow corporations to do whatever they want to the land without input from the people living in the area because they are not subject to the normal governmental operations. Citizens do not vote for the leaders of the companies or on any proposed ‘improvements’, thus they are left without a voice in governance – a distinctly undemocratic idea. Control is taken out of the hands of the people and put into the hands of large corporations, giving the same amount of power to appointed CEOs as officials elected by the people. The message here is concerning: make enough money and you too can run a government.
However, equally concerning is the message sent by DeSantis in the vote to remove Disney’s special tax district. The implication of the vote is that DeSantis will work very hard to destroy anyone who speaks out against his actions, which calls into question the very concept of free speech. According to the Constitution, everyone, citizen and corporation alike, is allowed to express their thoughts without retribution. This bill is a clear example of the root of a subtle shift to authoritarianism by the ruling party through slowly dissolving citizens’ rights. DeSantis has not officially done anything wrong. It is perfectly legal for him to propose the bill. However, he timed it in such a way as to send a message to Disney and other companies who might oppose him in the future that if they do, this could happen to them too. In doing so, he is not taking away anyone’s rights, but rather encouraging individuals and corporations to not exercise their rights due to fear. Eventually, if his fear tactic works, this could lead to more and larger abuses of power on the part of DeSantis and his government, heightening the consequences of speaking against the government until no one does it at all. What happens in the next few weeks will be telling: how long will Disney stand their ground until the price they have to pay is too high? And how will other companies follow their lead?