Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that the Sunshine State is “where woke goes to die.” When you consider the legal battles he has pursued against corporations like Disney and Bud Light and the legislation around curriculum and parental rights his administration has passed, that statement bears out. But is it a bridge too far?
On Friday, the 2024 Republican presidential hopeful joined Megyn to discuss if the government should be in the business of punishing corporations over speech. In particular, Megyn questioned if DeSantis’ actions would be criticized by conservatives if he was a Democrat.
Bud Light Backlash
Earlier this month, DeSantis announced he will investigate and potentially pursue legal action against Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, as a result of the company’s falling stock price in the wake of the beer maker’s ill-fated partnership with trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
Anheuser Busch has lost more than $27 billion in market value since the collaboration in late March. The most recent numbers for the week ending July 8 show Bud Light sales down almost 24 percent year over year, according to Nielsen IQ sales data from Bump Williams Consulting.
DeSantis has said the declines are impacting Florida’s FRS pension funds because the state held large amounts of AB InBev stock before the crash. On the topic of the potential legal action, DeSantis told Fox News that “it could be something that leads to a derivative lawsuit filed on behalf of the shareholders of the Florida pension fund.”
While Megyn has been the first to criticize Bud Light for working with Mulvaney, she questioned DeSantis’ actions. “Aren’t you doing the very thing to these companies that conservatives are mad at left wing leaders for doing – using government to punish citizens for political wrong think,” she asked.
DeSantis maintained that is not what he is doing. “We’re not punishing them – they departed from business practices by indulging in social activism and that has caused a huge problem for their company and their stock price has gone down,” he explained. “Our pension fund in Florida holds Anheuser Busch In-Bev stock, so it actually hurts teachers, it hurts cops, it hurts firefighters who depend on that pension fund.” He believes InBev “departed from their fiduciary duty.”
While Megyn remained unconvinced and pressed on how the state has the right to be involved, DeSantis argued that the government has to “say companies should do their job.” And when they veer off course, that should be addressed. “If they depart from that and they harm people, then you have an opportunity to potentially have recourse,” he said.
DeSantis v. Disney
A fight DeSantis is probably better known for is his feud with the entertainment giant that is Walt Disney World. Thanks to its Orlando, FL, theme park, Disney is one of the state’s largest employers and destinations. In fact, the governor and his wife Casey got married at the park in 2009.
The tensions between Disney and DeSantis dates back to January 2022 and the introduction of the Parental Rights in Education Act, which was dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. The legislation banned instruction in classrooms around gender identity and sexual orientation for kindergarten through third graders. In April 2023, the law expanded to include grades four through 12.
At first, Disney remained silent on the bill. After employees staged a public protest, then-CEO Bob Chapek called the legislation “yet another challenge to basic human rights.” When DeSantis signed the bill into law in March 2022, the Mouse House released another statement saying the company would have the law “repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts.”
The governor said Disney overstepped with its public comments and actions. “They were taking their corporate resources to basically attack parents’ rights in Florida and overturn state policy,” he told Megyn. “[Disney] started going down the road of sexualizing children, and we just could not be joined at the hip with a company that was doing that. That’s antithetical to our values and Florida.”
In April 2022, Florida lawmakers passed legislation dissolving Disney World’s special tax status known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District – a move that some perceived as retaliation against the company for speaking out. The Reedy Creek district began in 1967 and allowed Disney to essentially function as its own government, including operating its own fire, medical, and power services.
Once it was discovered that dissolving the district entirely may hurt taxpayers, legislators changed course and approved a bill that gave DeSantis control of the district and the ability to appoint five board members. But the infighting continued with the previous board members signing an eleventh-hour agreement that would essentially render the new board useless and give power back to Disney. A key portion of that included a development agreement that would allow Disney to control future construction in the area.
In early April, DeSantis called for an investigation into the previous Reedy Creek board’s development agreement with Disney. He also announced possible measures against Disney including raising taxes or building a prison next to the theme park. Following that, board members of the newly named Central Florida Tourism Oversight District voted to nullify the agreements that gave Disney control over future developments.
After the vote by the new board, Disney sued DeSantis in federal court arguing he tried to “weaponize government power” over the company. Furthermore, the suit argued DeSantis’ action against the company “threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.” Just days after, the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District countersued Disney, asking the court to invalidate the agreement previous members of the Reedy Creek board made with the company.
In late June, DeSantis filed a motion asking a federal judge to toss out the Walt Disney Company’s lawsuit against him and another state official, claiming the case lacks standing. Disney responded to the motion this week, arguing against it. “The Governor seeks to evade responsibility for his actions on a narrower ground, asserting that a governor cannot be held officially liable for implementing, administering, and enforcing state laws that punish residents for political statements violating a state-prescribed speech code,” the company said.
DeSantis’ legal team has until August 9 to respond. It remains unclear whether the federal case will go to trial.
Crime and Punishment?
Speaking on the decision to dissolve the district, DeSantis told Megyn it’s an issue of fairness. “We had to then make a decision and the legislature started saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, Disney is getting these benefits that they’ve had for a long time. Maybe we should reevaluate it,’” he explained. “They had [an arrangement] that no other individual or no other company in the entire state enjoyed… That’s taking away corporate welfare and putting everybody on a level playing field.”
Megyn asked the governor if he would have removed Reedy Creek’s special status irrespective of Disney’s criticism of the Parental Rights in Education Act. “Well, obviously they’re supporting sexualizing kids in Florida schools,” he said. “I mean, they were putting their corporate weight behind ensuring that could happen, so of course that’s a factor.”
But it was “not a punishment,” he maintained. DeSantis pointed to other moves by Disney, including leaked Zoom videos of executives admitting they were working to include gender ideology such as “queerness” into children’s programming. That was “part of the decision where the legislature’s support… to maintain this arrangement just collapsed,” he said.
Megyn likened the situation to the 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis case heard by the Supreme Court this year. SCOTUS sided with a Colorado-based website creator who did not want to be compelled to create wedding websites for same-sex couples because it violated her religious beliefs. Megyn said the decision “reminded us that citizens in this country are free to speak as they wish and not as the government demands.” She noted that if the actions of Florida against Disney are at all related to speech, that is not something she wants to see used against the right. “I don’t want a President Gavin Newsom doing this to conservative companies or companies who have a more conservative viewpoint,” she said.
DeSantis maintained that the Disney situation is not a matter of speech. “They’re not being punished,” he said. “We’re just simply removing special benefits that they have had.” He said the setup between the Sunshine State and Mouse House was especially unique. “I don’t think there’s any arrangement in America that mirrored the arrangement Disney had in Florida for many, many decades,” he shared. “We just could not justify how you [could] be exempt from laws that every other company and business has to follow?”
Ultimately, DeSantis believes the actions of Florida lawmakers and his administration are justified given the terms of the Reedy Creek Improvement District. “This was something that was just totally, totally unjustifiable, but it lived on in Florida for many, many decades because [Disney was] just so powerful,” he concluded. “Take apart all of the stuff with the sexualization of children and all that – just on the merits, was this an arrangement that was justifiable? And the answer is no, but no one really questioned it in the legislature because [Disney] enjoyed a lot of political sway.”
You can check out Megyn’s full conversation with Gov. DeSantis by tuning in to episode 597 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.