Below is my column in Fox.com on free speech controversies brewing in the “House of Mouse” as both the company and its talent face public backlash over public statements. Free speech in the corporate setting presents unique challenges and conditions that are vividly demonstrated by the tough month the company is experiencing.
Here is the column:
Walt Disney once remarked, “You reach a point where you don’t work for money.” For shareholders of Disney, the most common complaint in recent years is that the entire corporation appears to have reached that point in pushing woke movies that have bombed with consumers and a political fight with Florida that has already cost the corporation dearly.
At the heart of two recent controversies are free speech disputes. The company’s new Snow White, actress Rachel Zegler, is publicly defending her right to trash the franchise’s original storyline and characters. In the meantime, the company is objecting that it is being punished for its own free speech in opposing Florida’s popular parental rights law.
Recently, Disney dropped all of its federal claims against the state of Florida over the company’s public opposition to the Parental Rights in Education Act. The only exception is its free speech claim that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has retaliated against the House of Mouse for speaking as a company against the law. (It has state litigation that is continuing on other claims.)
At the same time, Disney is facing another free speech controversy after Zegler used her casting as the new Snow White to denounce the entire premise and appeal of the original 1937 movie, calling Prince Charming a presumptive “stalker” and promising to ditch the whole love interest. She told an interviewer that Snow White is “not going to be saved by the prince and she’s not going to be dreaming about true love.”
What followed was a familiar groan to another Disney woke remake that seems to delight only Disney actors and diversity officers.
The problems with the film were magnified when even the dwarves seemed to get the axe after “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage expressed his disapproval for the film and objected to the very notion of any of the seven traditional figures making a reappearance: “You’re still making that f—ing backwards story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together, what the f— are you doing, man? Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soap box? I guess I’m not loud enough.”
He was indeed loud enough (which is surprising since his movie, “Cyrano,” bombed at the box office and took in just $6.4 million for a $30 million production). Soon after his objections, Disney posted a new vision of the dwarves as a happy band of male and female, racially diverse group of non-dwarves (except for one actor).
The backlash (and the actors’ strike) has now resulted in a delay of the release of the remake for another year and the sudden re-appearance of the original dwarves. (Disney insists that the earlier actors were just “stand ins” for the dwarves, which is a bit odd since the dwarves are digitally produced.)
Yet, right on cue, Zegler was back in the news with the release of the new images and date by reaffirming her earlier comments. Zegler encourages other actors to follow her lead in speaking out on such subjects.
Echoing Dinklage, Zegler declared that “we have to be fearless and loud in order to be heard, and to prepare for the backlash that occasionally comes with that outspokenness.”
Her rep quickly ran forward to say, “Snow White was not mentioned in her quotes.”
The concern was obvious with an actress stirring the same pot that has caused the movie to tank in promotions. For the rep, there is also the concern that talent are subject to contracts with reservation clauses on disparaging or damaging public comments or conduct.
The Zegler controversy reflects the fact that free speech is different in a corporate context. Even when the NFL caved to kneelers (despite countervailing rules against demonstrations in games), it had every right to bar such protests. Companies like Home Depot and Whole Foods have prevailed in barring the wearing of Black Lives Matter symbols. These companies are allowed to block political expression in the workplace deemed inimical to their brand or business.
Disney is now leading an interesting counter effort in fighting for the right of a corporation to speak on political issues even to the alienation of its consumers. It certainly has that right.
Over 60% of voters support the language in the Florida parental rights act. Nevertheless, Disney can make such political campaigns the priority over actual sales so long as the shareholders do not revolt.
From the outset of the fight with Florida, some of us could not see the possible winning strategy for Disney. Disney is losing money in critical areas, raising prices, embroiled in internal conflicts and laying off workers.
At the same time, CEO Bob Iger is facing an investor revolt.
Disney appears to be trying to move beyond its fight with Florida, but it is continuing to litigate its right to free speech. Ironically, many liberals who opposed corporate free speech rights in cases like Citizens United are supporting Disney in its claims.
Yet, the problem is not Disney’s right to speak as a corporation on political issues, but its right to continued favored status in the state.
Even if the controversy led to a reexamination of the status, would a court actually say that the state was barred from ordering greater corporate uniformity because Disney took a controversial public position? If so, Disney could insulate its corporate status by picking a fight with the state.
DeSantis replaced the handpicked Disney board and the state moved to force Disney to comply with the same laws as other corporations. The company is arguing that these measures were pure retaliation. The question is whether a court would feel comfortable in using such a perceived motivation to block an important state policy for uniformity in regulation.
Disney elected to go head-to-head in opposing the parental rights legislation and lost its favored status with both the state and many families. The question in the litigation is whether that is a prohibited cost to impose on the company or the cost of becoming a political advocate.
In the end, Iger will have to decide if Disney is now so profitable that it has “reached a point where you don’t work for money.” Snow White and the shareholders may hold different views on that question.