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(gentle music ending) - Coming up next, Disney sues the Governor over its right to free speech, the war on woke is taking a toll on Florida's once vaunted university system, we'll take a look at how teacher pay in Florida stacks up against the rest of the country, and a Navy veteran speaks out against book banning in Florida.
All this and more coming up right now on "Florida This Week".
(dramatic music) Welcome back.
Joining us on the panel this week, Emily Mahoney is the political editor for the Tampa Bay Times, Tara Newsom is an attorney and a Political Science professor at St. Petersburg College, Barry Edwards is a political commentator and a pollster, and Matt Dixon is the Senior National Politics Reporter for NBC News Digital.
So nice to see all of you.
Thank you for being on the program.
Well, this week the Walt Disney Company sued Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over the Republicans' takeover of its theme park district, alleging the Governor waged a campaign of government retaliation against Disney after the company opposed a law which the critics call Don't Say Gay.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court.
It's the latest in a verbal and legal war that began more than a year ago, when the Parental Rights, or Don't Say Gay bill was passed in the legislature and signed by the Governor.
The law, in its preamble, prohibits classroom instruction and discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Disney objected, both privately to the Governor, and in public.
As punishment, DeSantis took over Disney World's self-governing district and appointed a new board to oversee municipal services in the theme parks.
But before the new DeSantis board came in, the company tried to out-maneuver the Governor by pushing through a last minute agreement that stripped the DeSantis board of much of their authority.
On his trip around the world this week, the Governor had this to say about the Disney lawsuit.
- I don't think the suit has merit.
I think it's political.
I think they filed, you know, in Tallahassee for a reason, because they're trying to generate, you know, some district court decision.
I will say, a lot of Floridians were upset, particularly parents, that they really went so headstrong into trying to get the sexualization of the curriculum into the elementary schools.
We don't think that that's appropriate in Florida.
- Emily, tell us a little bit more about what Disney is alleging in this lawsuit against the Governor.
- Sure, so they're claiming that they are the victim of government retaliation.
They call it an orchestrated campaign led by Ron DeSantis.
And I think the heart of their argument is really a First Amendment one, that they were punished as a result of their stance on the so-called Don't Say Gay bill.
But they allege all kinds of constitutional problems, that is, the U.S. constitution, because this is in federal court.
They say that their property's been taken away, which is a Fifth Amendment violation, that their due process has been violated, which is the 14th Amendment.
But really at the heart of it is a free speech argument.
- Now the Governor says, look, they have special rights and I'm just taking away their special rights.
No business should have the right to control their own property, the property that they control, like Disney.
- Right, well, and there's no question that Disney has enjoyed extraordinary special privileges in Florida for decades.
But you know, does that give the Governor the right to take it away as a result of their speech, I think, will probably be the heart of the legal argument that Disney presents.
And some legal experts that I've talked to who sort of specialize in corporate free speech, you know, corporations do have the right to free speech, like individuals, have said that Disney could have a strong case on that point.
- Matt, this comes at a time, as you've reported this week, that the Governor is preparing to announce that he's officially running for President.
Let's talk about that for just a moment.
- Yeah, I think there's some folks in the Governor's orbit, they've had a rough month or so.
The polling numbers have dropped, they're coming under withering attacks from President Trump, and there's, I think, a strong sort of core of the DeSantis orbit who says we need to sort of launch, we need to get the candidate, the principal, sort of more involved rather than sitting on the sidelines and letting super PACs do it.
So I think there's going to be, in the next week or two, mid-May there's gonna be an exploratory committee, which is a very normal part of anyone wanting to run for President, and then by, we don't have a specific date, but by early June, the first few weeks of June, I think there'll be a formal launch, and we're gonna kind of see the process change a bit, as DeSantis has sat on the sidelines.
And once he's formally in, I think he's probably gonna be a little more directly engaged than he has been now, because he's been flummoxed by some questions about 2024, some notably so, and some of those videos have gone viral.
- So Matt, not every Republican agrees with Governor DeSantis on this Disney question.
I want to ask this of you and also ask it of Barry, but we've got fellow Republicans, Marco Rubio, disagrees with this decision, Nikki Haley, the former Governor of South Carolina, presidential candidate, Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House.
Joe Gruters, in the state of Florida, voted against one of the bills that would take away power from Disney.
So does that present an obstacle to Ron DeSantis as he plans to try to beef up his support to run for President?
- Well, Joe Gruters notably is the only voice in Florida that's publicly expressed opposition, and he's endorsed President Trump, so I think that's key there.
But I would suggest to you that most Republicans in the Florida legislature, even those who support Ron DeSantis, are not in favor of sort of the doubling and tripling down on this sort of Disney legal and political battle.
And there are more than, I would say more than 50% that I've talked to over the past, gosh, couple of months or so, have sort of had to hold their nose and take votes they didn't want to on that issue.
So presidential level sort of Republicans in other states who see vying against DeSantis for the nomination as important, are coming out against it.
The state law makers who have endorsed President Trump are coming out against it, but I do think there is a sort of silent majority among Florida Republicans in even the state legislature who they don't feel comfortable speaking out yet, who are kind of getting tired and sort of annoyed by the continued Disney fight.
- Barry, would you agree with that?
- I think there is a growing wariness on it, but I think we ought to put this in context.
The media fueled a false narrative about the Don't Say Gay that got Republicans in Tallahassee to respond, and then we've just gone a tit for tat.
But one of the things that the media also put a false narrative, that Disney just did this, and really out-smarted the Governor.
The Department of Economic Opportunity signed off on all this stuff, so the government knew, the Governor knew, the state knew.
So this wasn't like this big surprise.
I just reject that.
But I think Disney's involvement was gratuitous when they condemned the bill, but I also think that the Governor was retaliatory.
But I think that Disney and Bob Iger really have other problems.
For the first time, they lost subscribers, and a lot of that, from that polling that I've seen, was because of the wokeness, people are rejecting it.
They're laying off 7,000 employees.
Does he really want to keep doubling down on the fight with DeSantis when his company is really struggling?
So I think we need to put it into perspective.
But I think he has bigger problems than this.
- When you say this is a false narrative, in the Disney lawsuit they quote a conservative commentator, Dave Rubin, who interviewed Governor DeSantis, and this is what DeSantis told Dave Rubin regarding the Don't Say Gay bill.
The Governor said, "I thought it was a mistake for Disney to get involved, and I told them you shouldn't get involved.
It's not going to work out well for you."
I mean, that sounds like a threat.
- I think he has been retaliatory.
But I also think they were gratuitous.
But I don't think your motivations for passing a law are gonna come into it.
I think it's the effect of the law, rather than your motivation, is really gonna be determinative here.
- All right, Emily mentioned the First Amendment and the Fifth Amendment.
The takings is a problem.
If you're a Republican, you're not usually in favor of taking somebody's property.
- I think there's even greater consequences to campaign finance law.
Like Emily said, corporate speech equals corporate donations so political donations equal political speech under the law.
So I think this is gonna have a really twisted sort of consequence if it turns out that DeSantis' fight with Disney ends up limiting his corporate donations, which if they limit corporate speech and corporate donations, will.
Well, as Governor DeSantis continues his war on woke, colleges and universities around the state are seeing a brain drain.
The website The Florida Bulldog reports campuses at Florida public universities are experiencing an exodus of faculty members, while out of state professors searching for new jobs are saying no thanks to coming to Florida.
The Governor's campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion, and his stance against some tenets of African-American history, plus the vagueness of the term woke are leading some professors to leave the state, and applications are down for faculty positions at some colleges and universities.
The Governor says he will not back down to the woke mob, and that he will expose the scams that they are trying to push onto students across the country.
He says Florida students will receive an education, not political indoctrination.
And Tara, you're a college professor.
Is there a woke mob?
What's your take on this?
Why are professors leaving?
Do you see it on your campus, and is there a woke mob indoctrinating students on your campus?
- Well first off, most people understand that woke means to be socially conscious of injustices.
And the state actually just put out a report today that showed that of our 28 colleges and 12 universities, there is no evidence of this woke mentality.
The USA Today poll this week came out and said that 56% of Americans want to be informed about social injustices.
And so it's sort of difficult to reconcile with Governor DeSantis' point that we have indoctrination when you also have at the same time this scoring up of New College, and this idea that we're going to place into New College very ultra conservative board members, we're gonna go ahead and do political gifts in terms of positions of presidencies, and allow for a former Speaker of the House to be placed as the college president, whose only credential, of course, is being Education Commissioner as a DeSantis appointee, and then having ties to Hillsdale College, which we know is being the blueprint for New College to be mimicked.
And then there's all sorts of complications that sort of take down his ideology about indoctrination.
I mean, the $700,000 salary, which is unheard of, the $10 million investment.
It's actually producing the least amount of applicants to New College.
Only 100 applicants have done that.
So it seems like the reverse is actually happening.
You know, we have a rich history of diverse students, diverse faculty, but any academician inside Florida or outside Florida, would be hard pressed if they were intellectually curious, innovative, want to be a thought leader, to be able to come to Florida or stay in Florida and be forward-thinking, to raise their families.
The culture and the culture wars might be just not the right place for them.
- And alumni at New College are withdrawing $29 million in donations.
- Yeah, I think this could end up having a really chilling effect on open access to college.
When you have this kind of temperature, institutions are no longer a sanctuary, they're a political fighting ground.
- Tara and Barry, both of you have worked for Democrats and Republicans.
Barry, what's your take on what's going on at college campuses?
- Well, I think the Governor is against departments that do diversity, equity and inclusion.
He's not against diversity, equity and inclusion.
So I think that's a distinction with a difference.
Two, when you look at the number of faculty leaving and you compare it two years ago, three years ago, five years ago, I haven't found a statistical difference for people leaving the system.
So I think that that's not true, so I reject that.
And I think you need more than three months to look at it.
You can take one day and say, oh, more people left the state but I think when you look at it over a long term, that's not the case.
New College was losing, one of the reasons New College has been under the microscope for the Board of Governors is because their student population has been declining, and it's way below what it was supposed to be, and their cost per student is four times what it is at the University of Florida.
So they had a lot of structural problems.
And I think that being the Commissioner of Education is a great credential.
Matt, what's your take on this?
You know, Barry says that the data doesn't really exist that shows college professors are leaving the state of Florida.
Have you reported on this, and what have you found?
- Well I mean, it's simply turning one university, and I think it's a national case study, or it's going to be moving forward, turning one specific university into this sort of testing ground for philosophical fights over public education.
I mean, Hillsdale has existed, but Hillsdale wasn't a, sort of probably center left liberal arts college before it became Hillsdale.
So beyond some of the things that were mentioned, there's also elements of the state budget where there's a degree of preferential treatment in the sense there's tranches of money to sort of continue to, I believe $15 million is the number, if that has been changed.
- [Rob] Yeah, I think that's right, 15.
- Right, so I think there's a whole lot of things going on here to completely transform a campus that we haven't seen before.
Obviously that's gonna impact the student body, it's gonna impact faculty, and I think the general idea of indoctrination is seen through a different light when you're changing the entire tapestry and makeup of a campus that yesterday was something that it's not going to be tomorrow.
- Emily, what about you?
What's your take on this?
- I recently spoke to someone who's involved with one of the faculty associations at USF, and she told me the same thing, that they're seeing a rise in the number of what they call failed searches for new faculty members as people say, mm, no thanks, I don't know if I want to come to Florida right now.
I think one of the other things we haven't really talked about is the push by the Governor and by the legislature to weaken tenure.
And that, it's tied up in all of this philosophical conversations, but I think it also just has to do with tenure is a hugely important part of being a faculty member at a university.
And so I think even beyond the sort of ideological battles that DeSantis is waging, with New College being a symbol of that, I think that the tenure stuff and some of the more policy oriented things is also having an effect.
Well, speaking of education, Florida continues to rank near the bottom of the nation when it comes to average teacher pay.
That's according to a new report from the National Education Association, which shows Florida ranking 48th in the nation for average teacher salaries.
That's even lower than it was in 2018, the year Governor DeSantis took office, when the state ranked slightly better, 47th.
The average teacher's pay in the state is $51,000 a year.
So Matt, we're seeing a huge number of teacher vacancies here in the state of Florida.
It's a nation-wide problem, but we've got a big problem here, about 5,200, 5,300 teaching vacancies for K through 12 schools.
And then support staff, 4,600 people, we've got vacancies for support staff, people that aren't willing to come in because pay is so low.
- I feel like an exceptionally old man, but this is my 13th or 14th legislative session, and fights over teacher pay have perpetually been sort of one of the defining issues.
Earlier in the 2000s during the great recession, there was cuts, and there's been this fight for a very long time.
In recent years, in the administration, I think Republicans in the legislature point to the fact that each year there has been an increase in teacher pay recently.
They have sort of made that part of their messaging, especially as they get into sort of fights with the teachers' unions and advocates of traditional public schools over school choice expansion.
They'll point to the idea that, hey, look, we've been increasing teacher pay.
But the numbers don't lie, to some degree, and Florida clearly lags other states, as much money as Republicans want to say, Republican majorities in Tallahassee say that they wanted to put into teacher pay, it's not terribly comparable to other states in the country as sort of the numbers you just illuminated indicate.
- So Barry, I think the Republican answer over the last 20 years or so has been more school choice, more charter schools, let's give school vouchers, this year school vouchers to everyone, and this is the way that we can solve our education problem in the state of Florida.
- Well, I think that most of my Republican friends think we need to put more money in education.
The debate is on where we put it.
I think we need to put money into vouchers, more money into charters, and a lot more money into public education.
I think what people fail to look at, my friends on the right, is that 90% of all the kids in K through 12 are in traditional public education.
They're not in private schools, they're not in voucher programs, they're not in charter schools.
They're in traditional public education.
So all you're doing on the other stuff is tinkering around the edges.
I think it's important, and if you're in a failing school, especially minority kids, to have those opportunities for charters or vouchers, like Academy Prep in St. Petersburg or Academy Prep over here in Tampa.
I think they're great, but we do need to do more for public education.
One of the things that I think they're gonna do this year that Susan Valdez got put into the bill on the funding was they're gonna have a study on deregulation of public education.
I've never understood my friends on the right.
If we have all these problems with public education because of regulation, why, instead of making charter schools, why don't we get rid of the regulation?
So I think maybe that can do that.
But we do need to put more money into the system.
- Tara, why do you think teacher pay is so low in the state of Florida?
- I think that the cache of legislation that's come out of Tallahassee shows and demonstrates that there's not always an understanding and a respect for teachers.
And if you want a thriving economy, you want an educated citizenry, a healthy democracy, you find the best, most educated, credentialed teachers and you pay them a livable wage, if not more.
And if you want change, then you'll invest in the teacher that's going to bring that change.
And I think that many people in Florida, a lot of academicians think that rather than supporting teachers, there seems to be an assault on teachers, an assault on education, and that's a real problem.
- And to be fair, Lawton Chiles had similarly low numbers, the Democratic Governor, Bob Graham.
So we've had this in Florida because we are a low tax state, we have low revenue, and we have little money to give out for things like this.
- Well, the nation has seen a surge in book bans over the past two years, as parents, conservative activists and elected officials have flooded school districts with requests to remove scores of titles from classrooms and libraries, with Florida near the top of the list in such incidents.
After more than 200 books were banned in various school districts across Florida between the summers of 2021 and 2022, the crackdown continued, with districts banning 357 books in the next year.
That's according to the non-profit organization Pen America.
The organization reported that Florida had the second highest number of book banning incidents in the nation during that period, trailing only Texas.
The effort by some to ban books over content which discusses sexuality, health and history, is happening in school districts state-wide.
In Martin County, veteran Navy officer, Wes Rexroad, recently spoke against the banning of books in schools.
- I grew up in rural South Carolina, and books got me out of the trailer parks.
- Barry, what did you think of that statement?
- Well, let's dissect it.
First of all, I reject the term book banning.
For time immemorial, we've had librarians and the school systems have reviewed what goes into the system.
We don't allow "Hustler" in my Lakewood High School's library.
We don't allow books that say you should own slaves today in Lakewood High School's library.
So I think that these books need to be reviewed.
So we're not banning them.
We're saying that there's age appropriateness, which we've had under Bob Graham, we had it under Lawton Chiles, we had it under Reubin Askew.
So for K through 12, you ought to have some books that you have for 1st through 5th grade, 7th, 8th and 9th in the middle school.
- But Barry, some of the books that are being banned are "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut, "God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, "Anne Frank's Illustrated Diary".
I mean, those don't seem to be that controversial.
- Right, I've read "Slaughterhouse Five".
I haven't seen that particular Anne Frank.
I'm not saying that every decision is right, but everything has always been reviewed, so it's not a banning of books.
They're not saying.
- [Rob] But these books are being banned.
- No, they're not being banned.
They're not being housed in those libraries.
- [Rob] What do you call that?
- Well, you're having a review, and that's deemed by that group of parents or that local group as appropriate.
Banning would be you can't buy it.
Book banning and burning, like they did the Nazis in Moscow and Berlin.
That's very different than book banning.
We're just saying that my eight year old or 10 year old can't have access to that.
We're not saying the parents can't buy it.
We're not saying you can't order it on Amazon.
We're saying you're not gonna have it in that library.
- But isn't that a decision that should be up to the parents?
- But if I'm the parent, I don't know what my kid is doing in the library.
Do I want my kid to have "Hustler"?
I may not want my kid to have "Hustler", but if there's a Hustler magazine at the Lakewood High School library, I can't say that my son or daughter's not gonna be able to go read that.
Well, before we go, what other news stories should we be paying attention to, and Emily, let's start with you.
Your other big story of the week.
- Sure, so this one's close to my heart because I used to cover real estate.
But the legislature, the House has already passed this bill and it has momentum in the Senate.
They are moving to restrict local governments from governing the relationship between landlords and tenants, which is something that we've seen a rise of, particularly in some of Florida's bluer cities.
In the Tampa Bay area, Miami Dade, they've recently passed new ordinances to give people longer to prepare for an eviction, for example.
And so those types of rules passed by local governments would be essentially superseded by the legislature saying you can't do that anymore.
Well, Barry, your other big story.
- Two things.
I want to congratulate Jackson McMillan, a young Democratic consultant on the rise, was involved with both Lynn Hurtak and Bill Carlson's overwhelming victories, and he's only 21 years old, out of the University of Florida.
- [Rob] You're talking about the city of Tampa elections?
- The city of Tampa's city council elections.
And also this weekend is the 25th year that I'm doing the butterfly tent at the Green Thumb Plant Festival at Walter Fuller Park in St. Petersburg.
It's the largest plant fair in central Florida.
It's Saturday and Sunday, nine to four.
It's a great time.
If you want to buy a plant, you can get it.
- Tara, your other big story.
- It's a throwback story.
The Tampa Bay Times did a great story on the growing cost of DeSantis' litigation, and now that we see DeSantis having to defend against Disney, we're hearing that he's securing law firms that are around $800 an hour.
And so that really bolsters against the whole fiscal responsibility.
And why are we using state dollars to do that, especially when we have special taxation districts like The Villages that are not being re-worked?
So I think we need to be watching for the Tampa Bay Times to hopefully cover that.
- Matt, your other big story.
- The legislature appears poised, they're gonna pass legislation that both sort of blocks Governor DeSantis' travel from public directorates, and also would make it more difficult to see who is meeting with him at the Governor's mansion.
It comes as he's traveling more ahead of 2024, and also as he's set to start meeting with doing small donor dinners at the Governor's mansion.
So it's gonna be a little more complicated and difficult to cover some of those elements once that bill effectively becomes law, which we assume it will.
- All right, well thank you all for a great program, and thank you for joining us.
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From all of us here at WEDU, have a great weekend.
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