The Florida state legislature recently voted to end the Walt Disney Co.’s special tax district, which has permitted the Orlando amusement park to govern its land and save millions each year in taxes.
The decision followed a clash between Disney executives and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over recent legislation that prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for children in kindergarten through Grade 3.
UConn's Professor Robert Bird, the Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics and past president of the Academy of Legal Studies in Business, sat down with UConn Today to talk about clash between the corporation and Florida government as well as the implications for other companies that may be facing similar moral and ethical dilemmas:
Q: There are so many layers to this story, from taxation to self-governance, political power to human rights. What strikes you as most significant?
From one perspective, this is a debate over the role of LGBTQ+ education in schools. From another perspective, this raises the broader issue of the implications of private companies speaking and acting on matters of public policy.
Corporations can no longer remain neutral or silent on major issues facing American society. Consumers, employees, shareholders, and the public are increasingly expecting companies to take a stand on controversies that matter to them. Just as some companies are being punished for not severing their relationships with Russia, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so are companies like Disney expected to speak out against public policies that contradict the values of its stakeholders.
Q: Why does Disney play an important role in this issue?
Disney is an important participant in the underlying “Don’t Say Gay” dispute. Disney has a powerful public brand and takes care to cultivate a family-friendly image worldwide. Disney has also been a long-standing leader in supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Disney has provided health benefits to same-sex partners since 1995, and allowed “Gay Days” at Walt Disney World since 1991. Public opinion was more hostile toward LGBTQ+ rights then, and Disney stood by its values even with the ensuing controversy. For Disney to “stand down” when so many people were advocating for Disney’s support in opposition to the bill, would have eroded its long-standing support of gay rights generally.
Q: What message does this send to other CEOs who might be caught in a moral, ethical, or environmental debate with government leaders?
The message sent to other companies is that politicians will not remain idle if a company opposes favored legislation or enters the sphere of public debate. Firms need to walk a fine line between standing up for their values and eroding relationships with political leaders.
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Robert Bird Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics
Robert Bird is an expert in corporate compliance, employment law, legal strategy, business ethics, and corporate governance.