When Elon Musk bought Twitter, conservatives were ready to hold a ticker-tape parade. “Free speech is making a comeback,” proclaimed Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Fox News host Tucker Carlson exulted in this victory over liberals who are “trying to control what we say and think.” Gloated Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, “The Left is terrified of free speech.”
But the right’s unquenchable ardor for unbridled expression depends on who is speaking and who is trying to stop them. When Twitter de-platformed Donald Trump after the Capitol riot, that was censorship. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis punishes Disney for daring to oppose his “Parental Rights in Education” law, though, that’s what Disney should expect for opening its big mouth.
The law he signed stripped the company of the special self-governing status it has had for 55 years, which enables Disney to handle many functions and obligations normally assigned to municipal governments. A conservative could see that privilege as a commendable way of preventing local bureaucrats from over-regulating an innovative corporation. But Florida Republicans were willing to do that only so long as Disney didn’t step out of line.
On the day DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Disney said the law “should never have been passed” and that it should “be repealed.” The governor took great offense at the spectacle of a company that has long enriched the state presuming to question his wisdom.
Not that he minds big corporations involving themselves in political matters. He did not object when Disney contributed more than $100,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis political action committee. But if the company is going to make its views known, they had better align with his.
In their applause for DeSantis, conservatives have been unwilling to consider whether the anti-Disney measure contradicts the basic principles of free expression — and whether it violates the First Amendment. If they did, they would realize the new law is guilty on both counts.
The government does many things for its citizens that it is not required to do and is free to stop doing. Congress could abolish Pell Grants, which pay for college expenses. States can set conditions for eligibility for certain programs, such as requiring anyone getting unemployment compensation to look for work.
But once the government has extended certain benefits, it may not withdraw them from a beneficiary for exercising a constitutional right. The federal government may not revoke a student’s Pell Grant, or a worker’s unemployment benefits, for making a speech in favor of, or in opposition to, abortion rights or gun control or Joe Biden’s immigration policy — any more than it may put them in jail.
The Supreme Court made this clear in a 1958 decision, among others. Back then, California granted property tax exemptions to military veterans, but only if they signed an oath that they did not advocate the use of force to overthrow the state or federal government. The court ruled the loyalty oath unconstitutional.
In language that could have been written with the Disney episode in mind, the court said: “To deny an exemption to claimants who engage in certain forms of speech is, in effect, to penalize them for such speech. Its deterrent effect is the same as if the State were to fine them for this speech.”
DeSantis and his accomplices made little effort to conceal their illegitimate motives. “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to marshal your economic might to attack the parents of my state?” he said. “We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”
Said GOP Rep. Randy Fine: “It’s time for them to remember that we are not California. And they are a California company. And we’re not interested in their California values here in this state.”
But the First Amendment says Californians can preach their values in all 50 states. Same goes for Floridians who venture beyond their own borders.
You can’t pretend to be a champion of free speech while deploying the power of government to exact vengeance against people who disagree with you. Florida never had to grant a special taxing district to Disney. But having chosen to do so, it may not revoke it in political retribution.
DeSantis and Co., who regard the guardians of Mickey Mouse as woke, immoral and hostile to Florida values, are entitled to trumpet their views till their tonsils fall out. But here’s the thing about freedom of speech: Disney gets to do the same.