Florida Is Punishing Disney For Opposing Bad Policy

By Terrance Turner

April 21, 2022

The Parental Rights In Education bill (widely known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) has led to a showdown between Disney and Florida government. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the legislation into law on March 28. The law became controversial because of its vague restrictions on classroom instruction and student services. Of particular note is Section 2:

“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties 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 in accordance with state standards,” the bill reads. The bill does not define what “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate” mean. Nor does it define what counts as “classroom instruction”.

Moreover, the preamble to the law speaks of “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.” What does “discussion” look like? What does “instruction” mean?

Suppose a second-grade teacher, married to a woman, runs into a student at the mall or a grocery store while shopping with her wife. The next day the student asks who the woman with her is. If the teacher says, “That’s my wife,” does this count as “classroom discussion”? Can a gay teacher mention his/her spouse during class? Can they place a photo of their spouse on the desk? Can a transgender teacher answer questions about their transition? Can they answer a student’s question about what “transgender” means? Can a student with two moms or two dads mention them in class?

Vox senior correspondent Ian Millhiser noted, “Under current law, the Don’t Say Gay bill isn’t just vague, it is unconstitutionally vague. In Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), for example, the Court struck down a web of New York laws intended to prevent communists and other ‘subversives’ from becoming teachers or professors — one statute, which barred employment of anyone who “‘advises or teaches the doctrine’ of forceful overthrow of government” was so broadly worded that it could potentially have forbidden state-run universities from teaching the Declaration of Independence. A statute governing classroom speech, the Court [said] in Keyishian, must not be so vague that people ‘of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application’.”

“Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law does not clear this bar,” Millhiser wrote. “It’s simply too vague.” (Mr. Millhiser received a juris doctorate, magna cum laude, from Duke University, where he edited the school’s law journal. He clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.)

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The bill advocates for “procedures that must reinforce the fundamental right of parents to make decision regarding the upbringing and control of the children.” It adds:

A school district may not adopt procedures or student support forms that prohibit school district personnel from notifying a parent about his or her student’s mental, emotional,
or physical health or well-being, or a change in related services or monitoring, or that encourage or have the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information. School district personnel may not discourage or prohibit parental notification of and involvement in critical decisions affecting a student’s mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.

From “Parental Rights in Education

New York magazine noted: “The principle here is that it is a parent’s absolute right to know such things about their children, but the consequences would be that counselors would have to violate confidentiality and out kids to their parents even if it would cause them to be rejected or thrown out of their homes. This is a massive, terrifying inversion of the responsibilities of a counselor. A trans kid who can’t talk about their gender identity at home, a closeted gay kid in a conservative Christian family — all public-school counselors would be required by law to out them to their parents, who may be unsupportive or abusive.

It’s also dangerous: According to UCLA’s Williams Institute, 22 percent of houseless youth are LGBTQ+ even though they account for just 7 percent of the overall population, and around half say they were thrown out of their homes by disapproving parents.” These issues spurred LGBTQ people and advocates to oppose the legislation and urge corporations to do so.

One of those companies was Disney. Initially, the company (led by chief executive Bob Chapek) stayed silent on the matter, with Chapek telling employees that he did not want the company to become “a political football.” But many employees were unsatisfied with that stance, and days later Chapek apologized via email:

To my fellow colleagues, but especially our LGBTQ+ community,” he wrote, “Thank you to all who have reached out to me sharing your pain, frustration and sadness over the company’s response to the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Speaking to you, reading your messages, and meeting with you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was. It is clear that this is not just an issue about a bill in Florida, but instead yet another challenge to basic human rights. You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I am sorry.”

Disney condemned the legislation and paused all special donations. DeSantis lashed out, urging lawmakers to revoke Disney’s tax status. “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy,” Mr. DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024, wrote in a fund-raising email to supporters. “I will not allow a woke corporation based in California to run our state.”

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Today the Florida legislature passed a bill that would eliminate Disney’s self-governing status in Florida. The bill would dissolve the special tax district that allows the Walt Disney Company to operate independently and provide its own specialized police and fire services.

The Reedy Creek Improvement District was created in 1967, after negotiations that involved Walt Disney and his family. The move helped entice Disney to build the Disney World theme park near Orlando. The Reedy Creek district allows Disney to collect taxes and provide its own firefighting, water treatment, and even garbage collection. The company runs the district and can even collect taxes.

According to CNBC, Reedy Creek spans 25,000 acres, straddling both Orange and Osceola counties. It includes four theme parks, two water parks, and a sports complex. (That’s a 220-acre basketball, baseball, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, and competitive cheer complex, according to the New York Times.) Also included are 18 Disney hotels with 24,000 rooms.

In 2021, Disney World paid over $780 million in state and local taxes. If the Reedy Creek district is dissolved, Orange and Osceola counties would be required by law to provide the district’s services. And the district’s $105 million in revenue would disappear, meaning county and local taxpayers would be on the hook for part or all of the added costs.

Orange County’s tax collector, Scott Randolph, has estimated that residents would see property taxes climb as much as 20 percent. Democratic State Rep. Fentrice Driskell went even further, telling CNN just before the votes happened on Thursday, “It’s going to cost the government in Orange County and Osceola Counties and therefore the tax payers billions of dollars. I’m talking an additional tax burden that’s estimated $2,200 to $2,800 per family.”

Additionally, per CNBC, Reedy Creek has bond liabilities of between $1 billion and $1.7 billion, according to the district’s financial filings. Under Florida statute, if Reedy Creek is dissolved, those liabilities are transferred to the local governments — either Bay Lake or Lake Buena Vista, or more likely, Orange and Osceola counties.

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According to Yahoo! News, “Under state law, Orange County is not allowed to tax Disney extra unless it creates a new special district for Disney. However, to do this, the county would need the property owners inside of Disney (the company) to agree to take back the debt. If the bond debt falls on Orange County, residents can expect to acquire between $2,200 to $2,800 in extra debt for a family of four.”

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