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Disney Does DeSantis

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Florida has always been a little wacky in its policies and legislation but there has never been such a public and vitreous spat between Disney, one of the largest taxpayers in the State and the single largest taxpayer in Central Florida to the tune of 1.1 billion dollars last year alone in state and local taxes, and the State of Florida government.

There are two dissenting opinions that are argued strongly from both sides. Feelings are strong and opinions run deep. A local discussion in a bar in Orlando was both illuminating and disturbing as facts have lost all relevance in the subject matter.

“They are promoting drag shows in the schools!” said the female bar patron, who has a 7 year old grandson and worries about him being exposed to things he might not understand.

This lack of understanding of LGBT issues and the recent passage of what is dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill” has revealed so much about the vague nature of the manner in which the issues are understood and the manner in which the law was written and interpreted, but it is also emblematic of the media portrayal of the actual lives that are targeted and amplifies unrestrained xenophobia. The fallout of the attempts to spin this harmful legislation as “protecting children” has impacted everyone in Florida.

On Thursday, Disney released a statement that it was pulling out of a 1 billion Investment deal in the Orlando area, citing “changing business conditions”. The media and entertainment giant announced the move amid a year-long feud with the state's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, after Disney publicly opposed his bill to limit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Disney also sued Ron DeSantis in February, alleging he targeted the company for political reasons and that DeSantis oversaw a campaign of government retaliation against the company for the fact that they opposed the passage of the bill, formally titled “Parental Rights in Education”.

According to a 2019 survey by The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), deemed Florida's school climate "not safe" for LGBTQ+ students, due in part to a lack of access to LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum and supportive school policies.

The “Don’t Say Gay” bill is actually a localized complaint box for parents and - to be clear - it violates federal law that protects students, teachers and even their parents from discrimination. But the spirit of the law is akin to an eroding Florida beach, and raises more problems than solutions. It emboldens greater acts of aggression to people within the LGBTQIA+ community and it has fostered similar legislation throughout the United States.

What the Law Says and How it Will Be Enforced

The “Don’t Say Gay Law” states that its purpose is to “prohibit classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.” To that end, the law provides:

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.

In other words, “instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity” - terms not defined in the law - is completely prohibited for students up to the third grade. Beyond the third grade, such instruction is permitted only to the extent that it is “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Vague Much?

Does it mean, for example, that an educator can use books with LGBTQIA+ characters so long as the discussion of those books does not focus on their sexual orientation or gender identity? Does it mean that all discussion of families and the many different ways families are formed must be avoided altogether in grades K-3?

The Florida Department of Education has so far failed to give any guidance on these or countless other questions about how the law will be applied. It is important to know, however, that Florida law must give way to the non-discrimination protections of federal civil rights law that are detailed below. Accordingly, efforts by school administrators to enforce the “Don’t Say Gay'' law in a way that prohibits only LGBTQ+ educators from discussing their family status or prohibits only children of same-sex marriages from discussing their families, violate those non-discrimination mandates and should be countered using the complaint procedures outlined in the actual law.

The “Don’t Say Gay” law itself requires schools to create a complaint procedure through which parents may raise “concerns” about compliance with the law.

If those concerns are not resolved internally with the school, a parent may either trigger an investigation by the Florida Department of Education, at the school’s expense or sue in court to obtain an injunction, damages, and/or attorney fees. As a result of the complaint process, and school districts seeking to avoid liability in court, individual educators could face serious consequences for violating the state law’s restrictions. School districts are “primarily responsible” for ensuring compliance with the law.

A school could decide that discipline or termination is appropriate for violations of the law. The danger of enforcement against individual educators is amplified by the fact that they enjoy relatively few job protections. For educators hired after 2011, tenure protections are nonexistent, and they can be dismissed at the end of their annual contracts without cause. And, while tenure protections are available for those hired before 2011, schools may still attempt to portray violations of the law as “gross insubordina- tion” or “willful neglect of duty” that would provide cause for discipline or dismissal.

It is also possible that a violation of the “Don’t Say Gay” law could expose educators to meritless proceedings to suspend or revoke their teaching certificates. State law provides that such action can be taken against any educator who “has violated the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession.” Indeed, it is theoretically possible that educators could be subjected to such actions for simply failing to report a colleague they suspect of violating the “Don’t Say Gay” restriction requiring educators to “report to appropriate authorities any known allegation of a violation of the Florida School Code or State Board of Education Rules”), although given the uncertainties as to the law’s scope such actions appear to be unlikely.

Once Disney signed on to oppose the bill, which can only be described as reluctantly, the heat from DeSantis was turned up and he started very clearly targeting its business practices which has resulted in Disney losing its self-governing status, putting a dramatic stop on local corporate investment deals like the 1 billion dollar campus in the Central Florida area, and put Florida residents at risk of losing their jobs and caused the State of Florida to engage in completely useless and endlessly expensive litigation which is the only language they seem to understand. The only winner here is the lawyers representing both sides of the cases.

At the end of the day, Disney will trounce DeSantis because of the Federal mandate that protects people who identify as LGBTQIA+. But the cost is going to be very high.

A quote from Tampa Bay Times Daniel Ruth sums up the epic failure of DeSantis policies brilliantly.

“DeSantis plans to fight Disney. He will lose. And it will cost millions of dollars to pay for the governor’s ignorance. That’s scary. Goofy, too.”

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