DeSantis’s Weaponization of Government Should Give Us Pause

Since the end of the 2022 mid-term elections, conservatives across America have considered Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis a potential frontrunner for the presidential nomination for the Republican party. In recent months, however, DeSantis has pressed forward on a move that could end up sinking his presidential aspirations: He picked a fight with Mickey Mouse.

DeSantis’s feud with Disney started when the company spoke out against his signing of Florida’s HB 1557, commonly referred to as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, and has mutated into a personal vendetta by DeSantis against Disney. Specifically, DeSantis has threatened the weaponization of government through targeted tax hikes, regulation, and detrimental developments to punish Disney for their dissent. DeSantis’s threats of unconstitutional retaliatory conduct expose his inability to control his emotions and engage in constructive discourse to address opposition — skills you’d hope anyone looking to sit in the oval office would have.

What started as standard political posturing by DeSantis has turned into a full-on attack on Florida’s largest single-site employer and local and state taxpayer ($1.1 billion) — and all over a political disagreement. Disney, which formally filed suit against DeSantis on April 26, employs over 75,000 Floridians, and brings in an estimated 58 million tourists annually to the state. Their lawsuit asserts that they have been subjected to impermissible government retaliation by DeSantis after exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.

And Disney has a solid case. After Disney spoke out against HB 1557, DeSantis made it a personal mission to go after Disney, and he started by replacing the longtime Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) with the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District (CFTOD). The RCID was a special district created by the State of Florida back in 1967 with the express purpose of supporting and administering certain aspects of the economic development within its boundaries, boundaries which now comprise the entire Disney World campus. This District allowed Disney to control and operate their development, maintenance, and land improvements with minimal involvement from the state government which allowed them to turn the land where Disney World resides from a swamp into the most successful theme park destination in the world.

The lawsuit against DeSantis, who was married at Disney World no less, comes as a response to the CFTOD “voiding” procedurally valid development contracts between Disney and the RCID. The contracts legally gave Disney control of land development within the District for at least 30 years with potential for 100 years or more. Revoking these valid contracts is clearly a retaliation for Disney’s political leanings — and a violation of Disney’s First Amendment rights.

“Hold on,” you might say. “Disney is a corporation, not a person. Do corporations have First Amendment rights?”

They sure do. It has been held in Grosjean v. American Press Co., a SCOTUS case, that a corporation is a “person” within the meaning of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Several cases have followed since Grojean and have confirmed and held that precedent.Despite the narrative DeSantis is espousing, the development contract passed by the RCID in February was legitimate, with the agreement being approved by the State Legislature which reaffirmed the enforceability of all prior contracts between Disney and the RCID, including this one. So why is it an issue and why is DeSantis continuing his brigade against Disney? The development contract utilizes a very niche and seldom used legal rule known as the ‘Rule Against Perpetuities’, which any lawyer can attest is as rare in the wild as a unicorn. The use of this legal concept has the potential to strip the CFTOD of any control over Disney development for a century or longer, and it is this stunning maneuvering by Disney that has sent DeSantis over the edge.

In a series of increasingly targeted proclamations, DeSantis has promised to double down on punishing Disney through government force, in no particular order he has threatened: hiking Disney hotel taxes, hiking utility costs on Disney-aligned properties, instituting and/or increasing tolls on roads leading in, out, and around Disney World, and building a state prison next to Disney-owned land. This blatant weaponizing of political power to punish opposing views and free speech should alarm Floridians and Americans alike.

DeSantis has now embroiled Florida into a lawsuit with Disney, a company that generates $84 billion in revenue, with the bill for his litigation ultimately being footed by the Florida taxpayers. And those threatened tax hikes? Well, those wouldn’t just hurt Disney, they would hurt the many third party vendors who operate within the District and who have no connection to Disney outside of leasing the land for which they operate. Those threatened tolls and utility cost hikes? Ask the Floridians residing in the formally Disney owned and operated town of Celebration for their thoughts. Countless jobs and livelihoods are at stake for innocent Floridians caught up in the hurricane of DeSantis’s own making, but it appears DeSantis is unable or unwilling to backtrack now.

As a result, DeSantis is now drawing ire from his own party, with other member’s attempting to distance themselves from him and his actions. Disney’s public statements on House Bill 1557 were fully protected by the First Amendment, which applies with particular force to political speech, and the plain meaning and intent of DeSantis’s actions and legislation is to attack Disney, and it isn’t even hidden. In total, the Contracts Clause, the Takings Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the First Amendment, have all been invoked by Disney in their lawsuit because of the concerted campaign of retaliation for an expressed opinion with which the governor disagreed.

You do not have to agree with Disney’s political opinions, but if our constitutional rights are to be preserved, you do have to stand against censorship and government retaliation. But regardless of how this case ends, Floridians lose. If Disney wins, Floridians foot the massive legal bill for DeSantis’ vendetta. If Florida wins, Floridians lose as the single largest economy player in the state will be hindered with tax hikes, cost increases, and loss of autonomy as a private enterprise, likely causing job loss and a substantial hit to Florida’s $101.9 billion tourism industry — $75.2 billion of which is from Disney. This doesn’t take into account the unintended consequences that will certainly follow if DeSantis gets his way. DeSantis should take heed from Harry Truman, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”