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The DeSantis-Disney dispute: Is it performative politics or could it lead to changes in Disney's longstanding favored status?

A statue of Walt Disney holding the hand of Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella's castle at the theme park in Orlando
Courtesy of Disney
Disney has had favored status in Florida for more than 50 years. A dispute over a new law about discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity could change that.

The most high-profile bill to come out of this year's Florida legislative session was the one that the state calls Parental Rights in Education. Opponents have labeled it the "don't say gay" bill — and it's now law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last month.

It prohibits any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, and says in other grades such instruction must be age-appropriate. The Palm Beach County school district is already starting to remove books from its school libraries in response.

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The law doesn't take effect until July 1, but it is still on the forefront of the political conversation in Florida, after the state's largest employer, Disney, came out in opposition to the bill and said it would work toward its repeal.

DeSantis and Republican legislators, in response, have doubled down on the culture war clash and said they will re-evaluate some of the favorable treatment the theme park and entertainment colossus has received from the state over the years.

"We're certainly not going to bend a knee to woke executives in California," DeSantis said.

Jason Garcia is an investigative reporter who writes the newsletter Seeking Rents, about corporate influence on government in Florida. On The Florida Roundup, he discussed whether the DeSantis-Disney dispute is performative or might lead to real actions.

"If you're Disney, you're a super-brand-sensitive company, the last thing you want is the governor of the state … and an entire party right now using you as sort of a rhetorical whipping post," he said.

On the other hand, Garcia said, he hasn't seen substantive proposals to take away some of Disney's favors from the state — including favors that DeSantis' own staff have helped facilitate.

An analysis of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which allows Disney to essentially act as a local government in parts of Orange and Osceola counties, would be an interesting exercise, Garcia said.

"There are arguments for it. Disney ends up essentially paying for a lot of its own government services that otherwise would be handled by a city or county government," he said.

But Disney also benefits by not paying impact fees, and not paying sales taxes on construction materials, he said.

The "really chilling" aspect of the dispute, Garcia said, is that DeSantis and other Florida Republicans are using the controversy to try to prevent other large corporations from publicly disagreeing with their policies.

Florida faculty are fighting back on state survey

This week, the state started voluntary surveys to measure “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” on college and university campuses. The United Faculty of Florida, which is suing to block the surveys, told school employees and students to ignore them.

Andrew Gothard, president of the union, said that claiming college campuses are too liberal is not new.

"For decades, this is something that typically gets thrown around close to election seasons or when far-right conservatives want to score political points against what they think is a weak target," he said. "But if it were actually true that liberalism were rampant on our higher education campuses, we would have seen a historic shift to the left that continued to dominate American culture. And in reality, what we see is a back-and-forth that we've always seen about Democratic versus Republican control of our Legislature and our country."

Gothard said United Faculty of Florida represents faculty members and graduate assistants from the Panhandle to the Keys — and understands that colleges reflect their communities.

"If you go to, say, a large university in an urban area, if the faculty and the students tend to lean left, that makes sense because that institution is made up of the community in which it exists," he said. "Whereas if you go to a small, rural community college, you will find that the vast majority of faculty and students there lean right, and our organization is made up of these disparate voices."

The union opposes the surveys for students as well as faculty and staff.

"Interestingly enough, neither of those two surveys asks what influence local administrators might be having on the political climate on campus. They don't ask what board of trustees members might be doing to influence political climate, and they don't ask what local politicians might be doing. They only ask about fellow students and colleagues," he said. "And that is very telling of the fact that these surveys are not actually trying to find the truth about the political climate on campus. They are a conclusion searching for evidence, and that for us means they are invalid from the beginning."

A federal judge this week refused to dismiss the union's lawsuit challenging the bill. Gothard said the trial is currently scheduled for September.

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.