On Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law revoking Disney World’s designation as a special tax district that allows the entertainment giant to self-govern its 25,000-acre theme park.
The magic kingdom now finds itself embroiled in controversy. Initially, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Disney would take no position on HB 15-57, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, or as critics call it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed by Governor Ron DeSantis. The bill prohibits “the classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity” through the third grade in Florida’s elementary schools.
On March 7, Chapek told employees:
“As we have seen time and again, corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds. Instead, they are often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.”
He said he did not want the company to become a “political football”. At that time, more than 150 companies had already signed a letter opposing the legislation.
Two days later Chapek changed course. Amid widespread outrage from Disney employees and fans, he called DeSantis to express disappointment with the law. And on the same day, at an annual shareholders meeting, he said, “our original approach, no matter how well-intended, didn’t quite get the job done.” He further apologized at a town hall for staff on March 21st.
On March 28th, DeSantis signed the bill into law.
We’ve recently seen corporate activism on…
Guns after parkland,
Social justice after George Floyd,
The perception of infringement on voting rights after a new law was signed in Georgia,
And a boycott of companies still doing business with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the Yale professor with the ‘golden Rolodex’ – the coordinator of corporate action on matters of public concern. I’ve often asked Sonnenfeld whether corporations should be worried about anything other than their bottom line. He’s told me certain situations demand a corporate response:
“Well, the geopolitical context is absolutely critical part, of course, of a business leader’s responsibility. You want to have faith in society, trust in free markets, and you want to have social harmony… When some people say to business leaders get back in their lane, I wonder, what lane are you talking about? The breakdown lane? It’s absolutely critical for them to focus. And 80 percent of the American public is behind these moves.”
But the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal sees a different lesson in Disney:
“There’s a warning here to other companies, especially Big Tech and Wall Street, which are mainly based in liberal states but conduct business everywhere… If they try to impose their cultural values, they risk losing Republican allies on the policy issues that matter most to their bottom lines, such as regulation, trade, taxation, antitrust and labor law…The Disney lesson for CEOs is to stay out of these divisive cultural fights. The lesson for political partisans in the workplace is that their bosses run the office, but they don’t run the country.”
What a shame that today, even Disney is subject to the partisan divide. But here we are.
Whether Florida should ever have passed the underlying law is open to fair debate. I wouldn’t want any teacher instructing our children on sexuality between kindergarten and the third grade. Then again, the law was poorly drafted insofar as the word “instructed” was never defined.
The preamble of the bill states that the aim is to prohibit “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.” But the actual bill states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur.”
If a young student asks a teacher why a classmate has two mommies, I think the teacher should be empowered to reply that family love comes in many shapes and sizes.
Another legitimate debate is whether Disney should have yielded to employee pressure and taken a position on the matter. That’s the Sonnenfeld/Wall Street Journal divide.
But about this there should be no debate: when a state actor punishes a speaker – corporate or individual – for expressing a political viewpoint, they’ve brought the full force of government on the wrong side of the first amendment. I don’t think that will stand if challenged.
Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.