I think Mickey Mouse should sue the State of Florida.

Acting as the plaintiff in a lawsuit would certainly be out of character for this sweet venerable icon of family entertainment, an animated cartoon character first created by Walt Disney in 1928 that has become the universally recognizable mascot of Disney’s theme parks. But who better to prevent predatory politicians like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis from muzzling freedom of speech?

The very idea conjures up an image of Mickey sticking his finger in the barrel of surly Yosemite Sam’s pistol, causing it to backfire and char-broil Sam’s drooping mustache. (I know! I know! Yosemite Sam was a Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, rather than Disney, creation, but allow me some poetic license).

In case you haven’t been following the drama in the Sunshine State, Florida’s Legislature, at the instigation of DeSantis, just revoked Walt Disney World’s 40-square-mile, self-governing tax district, known as Reedy Creek Improvement District, effective June 2023. Reedy Creek, formed in 1967, is akin to a private municipality that runs its own police and fire department, operates its own utilities, maintains its own infrastructure, issues its own building permits.

Why revoke that status? In a word, payback! DeSantis wanted to mete out punishment to this leftist, elitist, woke corporation, which had dared enter the public square to challenge his political agenda, one specially designed to turbo-charge his as-yet unannounced Presidential candidacy.

Disney, it seems, had come out in opposition to the DeSantis-sponsored Parental Rights in Education bill — dubbed by its critics as “Don’t Say Gay.” The measure provided that “[c]lassroom instruction… on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.” Signed into law by DeSantis on March 28, it allowed parents to sue school districts for violations.

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Revoking Disney’s special tax district makes no sense from a pragmatic point of view. As anyone who has visited the resort can attest, it’s probably the best run municipality in the country. Trash is picked up almost before it hits the ground. The place is spectacularly lit, its lawns and shrubs are immaculately groomed, crime is almost non-existent, and the trains always run on time.

Rest assured, when Orange and Osceola Counties, which encompass Reedy Creek, assume responsibility for these services, nothing like the existing level of efficiency will ever be attained again. Moreover, according to Orange County’s tax collector, property taxes will need to be increased 20% to 25% to pay for the cost of them.

The irony is that the Disney’s new CEO, Bob Chapek, at first tried to dodge the controversy over the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by avoiding public criticism of it while it was still pending before the Legislature. But after facing intense public backlash from both the public and his own employees over his silence, he finally spoke out against the proposed law at the company’s annual shareholder meeting March 9 and also wrote a memo apologizing to employees. After its passage, Disney promised to work for repeal of the law and to donate $5 million to organizations seeking to protect LGTBQ rights.

That’s the thing about “woke” corporations. Their culture is rarely the product of conscience-stricken CEOs. Rather, these profit-oriented entities are trying to maintain a healthy bottom line by retaining the loyalty of their customers and employees, most of whom (especially the younger ones) harbor the notion that all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.

So, if Florida is retaliating against Disney because of its CEO’s public pronouncements on an issue of political and social importance, isn’t that a violation of the right of free speech and shouldn’t Mickey be able to sue the state to protect that right? After all, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from making any law “abridging the freedom of speech.” Similarly Florida’s Constitution states, “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech.”

Two objections can be raised to this proposition.

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First, on its face, the law revoking Disney’s special tax district doesn’t say anything about curtailing speech. It’s only when you look at its history that its real purpose becomes clear. In DeSantis’ own words, Disney “crossed the line” when it weighed in on the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. So the tax district legislation, while constitutionally valid on its face, may be invalid as applied to Disney, because it was intended to deter or, in legal jargon, exert a “chilling” effect on free speech.

Second, Disney is a corporation, a legal construct rather than a flesh-and-blood human being. So how can it be entitled to the same constitutional free speech rights as a person?

Well, we have the U.S. Supreme Court to thank for establishing the precedent that corporations are entitled to protection for political speech. In its 2010 decision of Citizens United v. FEC, the Court held that a federal campaign finance law violated the First Amendment by limiting the right of corporations and unions to use their own treasuries to purchase pro- or anti-candidate media ads just prior to elections. In the process, the Court ruled that corporations, as associations of individuals, have free speech rights under the First Amendment.

I’m certainly not applauding the precedent of Citizens United. The case opened the floodgates to unlimited business campaign spending, thereby hopelessly corrupting the electoral process. However, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander!

Politicians like DeSantis who, thanks to the First Amendment, benefit from lavish corporate campaign spending, should have to suffer the slings and arrows of public criticism from those same corporations in the interest of protecting free speech.

I haven’t asked Mickey his opinion about all of this. Given his sunny personality, I assume he’d rather whistle a happy tune than file a nasty lawsuit.

But then again I think he’d be spunky enough to stand up to a bully like DeSantis, Florida’s Yosemite Sam.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 16 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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