TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida’s fight with the Walt Disney Company over its opposition to parental rights legislation started and ended fast. Efforts to strip Disney’s ability to self-govern passing in a special session of the legislature just two days after being announced officially in an amendment to the state’s redistricting special legislative session.
However, the quick turnaround to strip Disney of its legislatively approved tax rights could create complications, due to free speech rights afforded to companies in the United States. Commentary about the state legislature’s Disney decision has been split between support for changing the power dynamic between the state and Disney, or calling it retaliation for political speech.
For Floridians, and Americans at large, political opinions and even how you donate money to politicians and their campaigns are all protected as free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, through the First Amendment.
It’s a right that companies across the U.S. have had, explicitly, since 2010.
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations have the same free speech rights as everyday citizens.
The lawsuit was on Nov. 14, 2008 and began arguments on March 24, 2009. It centered on how spending and advertisements by companies and corporations did or did not count as protected speech.
The FEC had prohibited some of their promotional actions based on statutes passed in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, which created regulations for how political campaigns were financed, particularly concerning the use of what’s known as soft money. While hard money is a donation made to a specific candidate, soft money is when donations are made to political parties or committees instead.
According to an archive of SCOTUS decisions maintained by The Oyez Project at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, the non-profit 501(c)4 Citizens United sued to protect a film it produced from being blocked by the BCRA.
“Citizens United sought an injunction against the Federal Election Commission in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to prevent the application of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) to its film Hillary: The Movie,” Oyez summarized. “The Movie expressed opinions about whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a good president.”
The BCRA, called the McCain-Feingold or Shays-Meehan Act after its bill authors in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, also created limits for when broadcast political ads could air before a primary election or caucus, and a general election, while preventing corporations from paying for those ads.
Specifically, the law created a 30-day prohibition for ads before a primary and a 60-day block before general elections to prevent “electioneering communications,” as well as banning foreign nationals or foreign companies from contributing political spending.
The 2010 SCOTUS decision overturned the advertisement hold times before elections and opened up political spending by corporations as a method of free speech.
“By a 5-to-4 vote along ideological lines, the majority held that under the First Amendment corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited,” according to the Oyez summary. “The majority maintained that political speech is indispensable to a democracy, which is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation.”
Not only were companies now able to spend money to advocate for or against political candidates and legislation, but now contributions to non-profits or political committees did not have to be reported, protecting donor identities with what’s called dark money.
As a result, and to the consternation of politicians on both sides of the aisle, huge levels of funding with little transparency flooded the political arena of elections and gave companies the ability to more explicitly oppose new laws, candidates and decisions across the political spectrum and environment around the U.S.
With free speech rights largely the same as individual U.S. citizens now, corporate positions on everything from protests to justice initiatives, spending in politics ramped up and campaigning grew more expensive.
The right to spend and speak in support of or opposition to those policies is a protected right for any resident of Florida, and any company doing business there. The recent political position by the Walt Disney Company against new Florida law “Parental Rights in Education,” dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics, triggered a legislative attack by the state’s lawmakers and governor.
Since 1967, Disney has essentially operated as a quasi-government, nestled between Orange and Osceola counties, where they have the freedom to build, design and expand within a 25,000 acre area to their heart’s desire. That bubble holds the Magic Kingdom, in Florida’s Reedy Creek Improvement District. As a result of their opposition to HB 1557, Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies in the state legislature targeted the district’s tax status and passed a law to remove their ability to self-govern.
The politics of the moment remain fraught with litigious potential, in addition to the possibility of higher taxes and huge debts that could transfer from Disney to area residents upon the dissolution of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, where the Magic Kingdom is based in Florida.
For everyday Floridians, most won’t be affected, but the alleged retaliation against Disney company for exercising its free speech rights to oppose a bill could lead to a court challenge on constitutional grounds. Litigation is expensive, and Disney can afford it. The company is valued at more than $216 billion.
What’s unclear is what the costs to Florida taxpayers will be, if Disney takes Florida to court. It’s also unknown what, if any, bills will be due by area residents if Disney is unable to renew or recreate the Reedy Creek Improvement District as a result of the political actions in Florida.