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Opinion DeSantis attacks the Rays — and free speech

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando on Feb. 24. (REUTERS/Marco Bello)

First came punishing Disney for opposing Florida’s controversial bill on sexual orientation and gender identity education. Then it was threatening to fine the Special Olympics for its vaccine mandate. Now, Ron DeSantis has a new target: the Tampa Bay Rays.

Florida’s Republican governor last week vetoed $35 million in state funding for a new training and youth sports facility in Pasco County, Fla., in part because the baseball team denounced the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Tex., and pledged $50,000 to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-violence prevention organization.

Mr. DeSantis said he doesn’t support using taxpayer money for professional sports stadiums. We agree with him. But he also tied his veto to the Rays’ advocacy, and, according to CNN, he was undecided on the matter until the Rays spoke out against gun violence. Mr. DeSantis’s jab at the Rays makes only clearer his disregard for freedom of speech, a right the governor appears to respect only when organizations express views with which he agrees.

Mr. DeSantis explained that he doesn’t want public money to “subsidize political activism of a private corporation.” Yet he and his party did not complain — let alone move to rescind state financial benefits — when companies such as Disney and the Rays donated to GOP campaigns. It is one thing to decry corporate influence in politics. It is another to selectively revoke state benefits when companies disagree with the governor. A beneficiary of corporate free speech in the form of campaign donations, Mr. DeSantis is not standing on principle; he is bullying businesses in a series of vindictive publicity stunts.

This threatens free expression and free enterprise — values Republicans claim to champion — and represents a form of abusive behavior that is not unique to Mr. DeSantis, though the Florida governor is becoming an expert practitioner of it. President Donald Trump shamelessly used his office to lash out at companies that crossed him personally, from Amazon to Nordstrom to Carrier to Time Warner. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Federal and state Republicans alike are taking revenge against organizations standing up to them on new voting restrictions. In all these instances, questions about the public good are subordinate to concerns about who is willing to cater to politicians’ whims.

Such illiberal attacks on corporate autonomy are bad for free speech and for the health of his state’s economy. Which company will next face Mr. DeSantis’s wrath? As shareholders, employees and customers increasingly demand that companies speak out on social issues, some might no longer want to come to Florida and find out. Mr. DeSantis’s drive to generate as much controversy — and attract as much attention — as possible will come at the expense of Florida’s well-being and civic respect for the nation’s founding principles.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

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