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The Suppression Has Begun. But We Can Stop It.
Two news stories out of Florida and Montana on Wednesday might at first blush have seemed unrelated, but paired with what we just saw in Tennessee, we must now pay very close attention.
In Florida, the Walt Disney Company sued the state alleging violation of its constitutional rights after Gov. Ron DeSantis’s allies attempted to cancel two of the company’s land development contracts, all in retaliation for its opposition to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay or Trans law.
In Montana, the GOP legislature voted to silence Rep. Zooey Zephyr, a Democratic member from Missoula, barring her from the rest of the legislative session. As with the Tennessee Three, the Montana House brought an action against Zephyr alleging violation of rules and decorum—a move unheard of in 100 years of that state chamber’s history.
Political observers look for patterns of behavior that might indicate a broader issue. Here, the signs are flashing red. Republicans, who are in full, supermajority charge of these three states, have now used that power to actively silence dissent, and they aren’t even trying to hide it.
You’re likely familiar with what went down in Tennessee earlier this month. Today, let’s get caught up on the Florida and Montana situations and draw some parallels. Together, they show we are at the beginning of a new phase of state-level suppression that, if left unchecked, could add considerably to our growing national crisis in democracy. But if mobilized against, these incidents could galvanize us into direct action against creeping authoritarianism.
Disney strikes back
Disney has finally had it with Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state of Florida. After months of harassment, intimidation and open infringement upon its contractual rights, all because the company dared to speak out against Florida’s hateful anti-LGBTQ bill, Disney filed suit in federal court. It is alleging a violation of its contractual and constitutional rights, including free speech and due process.
Let’s back up and review the history of this fight. It demonstrates that DeSantis is acting like a tin-pot dictator by seeking to use the power of the state to punish those who disagree with or challenge him politically in any way.
DeSantis’s choice of target is a politically risky one. Disney is the largest employer in the state and plans to invest some $12 billion into Florida over the coming years. Picking a fight also risks alienating other businesses considering Florida as a destination for investment. And it’s pretty bad optics to come after Mickey Mouse.
No matter. When Disney spoke out against DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law, which prohibits classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for young students (with a current proposal to raise the age through the 12th grade), DeSantis decided to go to war with the company. He began calling it “Woke Disney” and claimed in a fundraising email, “If Disney wants to pick a fight, they chose the wrong guy.” (This email, by the way, is strong evidence that all of what happened later was direct and illegal retaliation for Disney’s public stance against the bill—which is a big problem for DeSantis in the federal lawsuit.)
The hostile measures targeting the company began shortly thereafter. The legislature, at DeSantis’s urging, ended Disney’s long-held right of self-governance. The Governor installed his cronies in charge of the tax district governing the company and its properties. He announced new ride inspections. He even half-jokingly suggested he could build a state prison next to the park.
Disney maneuvered behind the scenes to protect its interests, including outfoxing DeSantis by quietly and legally stripping the new trustees of much of their power via a new agreement. This further enraged DeSantis. “We’ll make sure that we keep them in their pen, one way or another,” he warned last week.
On Wednesday the new DeSantis-appointed board went too far. It nullified two development deals that allowed Disney to expand on the land around the park. Hours later, Disney filed suit, alleging that his actions “jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.”
"In America, the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind,” the company said, signaling it intends to make this a larger question of state-level intimidation. Disney further stated that it “knows that it is fortunate to have the resources to take a stand against the state's retaliation — a stand smaller businesses and individuals might not be able to take when the state comes after them for expressing their own views.”
One of the hallmarks of an “illiberal” state, as I discussed in an earlier piece I wrote on the growing autocracy in Florida, is that it abhors any kind of dissent, even from a private media company. In countries such as Hungary, whose leader Viktor Orbán is widely admired by the far-right in the U.S., and whose illiberal blueprint DeSantis appears to be following, the state has seized effective control of key media companies in order to control the political narrative. Would-be dictators like DeSantis cannot stomach the idea of political opposition to their agendas. And if that happens to come from the state’s largest employer, they would sooner go to war with that company than back down.
Seen in this light, the Disney matter is a textbook case of intolerance of any dissent and the blatant misuse of government power to silence it. With this new lawsuit, we will ultimately see whether the conservative 11th Circuit and at least two of the five right-wing justices on the Supreme Court agree.
Let her speak
On the other side of the country, a similar battle over free speech and political suppression is playing out in Montana.
Like dozens of other GOP-controlled states, Montana is preparing to ban gender affirming health care to minors. This is part of a concerted, national scapegoating of the trans community, which far-right organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom have targeted with an avalanche of legislation. The unspoken but apparent goal is to stir up panic, fear and hate within the GOP base, which will lead to more mobilized and motivated donors.
Montana is considering half a dozen versions of anti-trans legislation. Rep. Zephyr is the only trans member of the Montana House of Representatives, and she has spoken passionately against these bills. Specifically, she has cited the findings of major medical groups such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics that unanimously recommend gender affirming care for minors suffering from gender dysphoria.
As Zephyr has stated in debate, such care is literally life-saving. Trans youth suffer disproportionately high rates of depression and suicide, but gender affirming care can provide hope and a path through to good mental health and social adjustment. Banning such care, says the APA, poses serious mental health risks and infringes on the rights of both doctors and patients.
But these concerns fell on deaf GOP ears. As with its extreme gun positions, the party sees the trans issue as a key part of its “culture war” against the left. To opponents like Zephyr, the GOP doesn’t seem to care how many lives are ruined or lost in the fight. As the bill in Montana neared passage, Rep. Zephyr gave an impassioned speech, in which she said to her Republican colleagues that if they passed the ban, it would put “blood on your hands” and that denying care would be “tantamount to torture.”
That led to Republicans throwing a collective tantrum, all for getting called out on precisely what they were doing. The Montana Freedom Caucus of 21 members accused Zephyr of “attempting to shame the Montana legislative body” through the use of “hateful rhetoric.” But instead of attempting a formal reprimand, the body began to silence her by refusing to call upon her, even though her microphone light was on to speak. This silencing applied to any bill under consideration in the chamber.
With echoes of Tennessee, Zephyr’s supporters then gathered in the chamber, protesting loudly from the gallery about her being silenced. That led to riot police making arrests of peaceful protestors. At a news conference, Speaker Matt Regier argued, cynically, that “the only person who is silencing Representative Zephyr is Representative Zephyr.”
At the final reading of the bill, the Montana House remained closed to the public but was broadcast online. Zephyr was finally permitted to speak.
“When I rose up and said, ‘There is blood on your hands,’ I was not being hyperbolic. I was speaking to the real consequences of the votes that we as legislators take in this body,” Zephyr said.
When the Speaker later silenced her, he was “driving a nail in the coffin of democracy.” She continued, “When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed; he’s asking me to be complicit in this Legislature’s eradication of our community.”
“I refuse to do so. I will always refuse to do so,” she added.
The House majority leader, Rep. Sue Vinton argued in response that Zephyr‘s conduct “cannot be allowed to stand.” Vinton stated, “Our constituents and our state deserve better. They deserve our full attention, and this institution and body deserve the respect of all its members.” She urged the legislators to “regain the decorum of this body, not only now but also to set precedent for the future.”
The members then voted 68-32 to block Zephyr from the House floor for the remainder of the session.
They can’t win the debate, so they try to close it.
It is one thing for a legislature to pass horrific bills intentionally targeting the most vulnerable communities within the state. Those bills are violative of equal protection, are steeped in animus, and are under legal challenge as we speak.
It is still one dangerous level further to work actively to silence any public debate around those bills. If the First Amendment means anything, it is that government cannot pass laws infringing upon the free speech rights of the public, whether they are big corporations in a dense, populous state, or lonely trans representatives in a far-flung rural one. It especially cannot do so merely because it disagrees with the content of that speech.
And yet, here they are, trying to do just that. From Tennessee to Florida to Montana, the GOP is testing the limits of its authority by brazenly seeking to silence those who disagree with it.
We must first recognize that this is happening, that it is a pattern, and that it must be met head-on. We must also be cognizant that other red states will likely attempt similar things because it is always a race to the bottom with them.
There are two primary avenues for resistance here.
The first is legal challenges, and we should expect the Disney suit to garner much national attention and amici briefs from other interested parties. Large corporations that don’t want more mini-DeSantises abusing their authority stand a better chance of gaining the ear of the SCOTUS justices than most parties.
The second is direct mobilization. National attention upon the debacle in Tennessee led to precisely the opposite of what the GOP had wanted in the capital. The same sunlight must now shine upon Montana for what it is doing. While such attention may not stop the anti-trans bills or reverse the banning of Rep. Zephyr from the chamber, it will add significantly to the political costs of this move and could deter similar moves by other legislatures in other states.
Please share this story to help the rest of America see what is happening in these states and how the GOP is working to undermine our democracy through silencing voices of dissent. Most Americans still recoil at the idea of government censorship, even if they disagree with the message, so there is still common ground here.
Silence or indifference by the larger public will only embolden more bad actors in other states. Now is the time to speak out and speak up for free speech.