The Walt Disney Co. is learning what university professors, public schools and media organizations in Florida already know — cross Gov. Ron DeSantis at your own peril. Nothing else explains the governor’s crusade against Disney in the wake of Disney’s criticism of the so-called “don’t say gay” law that Florida Republicans made a priority this year. It’s not enough for DeSantis to win; the governor has to cudgel his opponents. It’s a terrible reflection on Florida government and the health of the state’s democracy.
On Tuesday, just hours before the start of a special legislative session on redistricting, DeSantis announced he had expanded the agenda to consider repealing the law that allows the Walt Disney World Resort to operate as a self-governing body. The attack on Disney came after the company criticized the Parental Rights in Education bill, which critics dub the “don’t say gay” law. The measure prohibits instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade (which wasn’t happening anyway) and requires that such conversations in later grades be “age-appropriate,” a vague description that could easily lead to unnecessary legal wrangling. Disney worked behind the scenes to weaken the measure. After it passed, Disney CEO Bob Chapek apologized to his employees for not acting more forcefully, and announced the company would pause its political donations in the state.
There is nothing wrong with reexamining Disney’s special taxing district and governing body. State lawmakers created the Reedy Creek Improvement District in 1967. Encompassing 39 square miles, two cities and land in Orange and Osceola counties, the designation allows Disney to act with the same authority and responsibility as a county government. Disney can control its own zoning. It has its own police and fire departments, and it operates independently of other rules imposed on counties in the state.
Repealing the designation raises pros and cons, all of which deserve serious, deliberate consideration. But that’s not what this week’s special session is about. Adding Disney at the last minute was a shot across the bow, and the governor’s way of warning other companies not to cross him — or else.
Of course, this has become standard procedure for one-party rule with whiffs of autocracy. Last year, the University of Florida was besieged with allegations of appeasement after trying to gag faculty from engaging in politically contentious lawsuits involving DeSantis and the state. While the public outcry prompted UF to reverse course, the governor signed a bill this week making it harder for faculty at state universities to retain tenure. After Florida’s 12 largest school districts defied DeSantis’ anti-mask mandates, Republican lawmakers moved this year to make them ineligible for millions of dollars in high-performance grants. Last month, the governor signed a bill imposing term limits on locally-elected school board members (”Throw the bums out,” he extorted). In March, for the second time in 11 months, the Legislature voted to send a bill to DeSantis that would strip Florida’s newspapers of revenue from legal notices, in what lawmakers openly mused was retribution for stories and editorials critical of the Republican leadership. Each instance builds to a pattern of bullying, and another example is surely coming soon.
Florida Republicans are waging a phony war. They claim to be bastions against indoctrination and censorship, yet they are honing those dangers to a fine point themselves. Shaking up Fantasyland after a half-century is one thing. But is that the price of political dissent? What company, what industry, what institution is next? And where is Florida headed under this Republican leadership if more voices merely clam up and go away?
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.