Background: The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission preserved the right of corporations to exercise political speech through campaigns, comments, and contributions, and was a landmark decision that reshaped the political landscape in the United States. Before Citizens United, direct contributions to candidates and independent expenditures (such as advertising) to promote the election or defeat of candidates were prohibited. Companies that wished to participate in political activity could do so through a corporate political action committee (PAC) funded by voluntary contributions from employees and shareholders—but not with corporate revenue.
In the post-Citizens years, corporations have been facing increased scrutiny over their political spending—particularly when their stated corporate values seem to contradict their lobbying efforts. Disney employees spearheaded the company’s response and denouncement of Governor DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bars instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity through third grade. The situation highlights the balancing act faced by companies with a diverse workforce and conservative politicians accusing companies of bending to cancel culture.
The Citizens United ruling has come under scrutiny from both sides. Some politicians and activists argue that it has led to the increasing influence of corporations in politics, while others argue that it has simply leveled the playing field and allowed all groups to have their voices heard. So how big is the influence? According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, corporations donated a record-breaking $6.7 billion to political campaigns during the 2020 election cycle. This is a significant increase from the 2018 election cycle, where corporations donated $4.2 billion. In our own backyard, Disney has donated nearly $250,000 in the last two years to members of the Florida legislature that voted on the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and $50,000 to Governor Ron DeSantis. These donations underscore the significant financial resources that corporations can bring to bear in the political process.
The current situation in Florida surrounding the Walt Disney Company’s special district status is a prime example of how the Citizens United ruling can affect the political process. As the legal battle between Disney and the Florida government continues, it seems that both sides are determined to come out on top. The original move was to abolish the special district but legislators soon realized that residents would be on the hook for $1 billion in debt plus costs associated with Disney World services like fire, police, and road maintenance. So they went back to the drawing board and wrote legislation to take control over the district’s governing board and insert Governor appointed members. The final state takeover move came as a late-session amendment that allowed the new Governor appointed board to undo any past board decisions. All this shows just how far the DeSantis administration and legislators are willing to go to assert authority.
However, Disney is not backing down, and the company’s lawsuit against the Governor is a clear indication that they will not be silenced. The board makeup is important because members vote on Disney World infrastructure projects, like building hotels and roads, or an additional theme park. The worry is that a politicized board could delay or even block such plans. The Governor recently threw more fuel on the fire by floating the idea at a press conference of building a new state park, a rival amusement park, or even a new state prison next to Disney. It remains to be seen how this metaphorical boxing match will play out, but one thing is certain: both sides are fighting hard for what they believe in. Below are some excerpts from the Disney court filing.
“Having exhausted efforts to seek a resolution, the Company is left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials.”
“This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional. But the Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop.”
The Governor’s move has been seen by Disney and the Governor’s critics as a potentially unconstitutional act of retaliation for Disney’s opposing political position. While signing the bill, DeSantis called out Disney for being “based in” California but using its “economic might” to attack Florida parents. So that brings us back to the Citizens United ruling. Under the Supreme Court ruling, Disney’s opposition to the legislation is protected speech. The removal of the Reedy Creek Improvement District board and the insertion of a politicized board could be viewed as a violation of those rights.
This is not the governor’s first court battle over the First Amendment. In 2021, Governor DeSantis signed into law a bill that aimed to punish social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter for what he and other conservatives viewed as censorship of conservative voices. The bill allowed the state to fine large social media companies up to $250,000 per day for removing political candidates and $25,000 per day for removing non-statewide candidates. It also required platforms to publish standards for how they decide to “censor, deplatform, and shadow ban.” users. However, on May 23, 2022, a federal appeals court ruled the law unconstitutional, upholding a similar decision by a Florida federal district judge. The court concluded that it was unconstitutional for DeSantis and the Florida Legislature to tell the social media companies how to conduct their work under the Constitution’s free speech guarantee.
While many believe that the Citizens United ruling has unfairly skewed the ability of wealthy donors to influence elections, the decision grants corporations First Amendment rights when it comes to political speech. The Citizens United decision supports Disney’s claim that Governor DeSantis violated its First Amendment rights by retaliating against the company for opposing a law. Governor DeSantis may have finally met his match.