DeSantis targets nonprofit theater

by Scott Maxwell

Gov. Ron DeSantis took his culture warring to new extremes last week, trying to yank a nonprofit theater’s liquor license because it allowed another company to rent out its theater for a drag show.

In Ron DeSantis’ America, it’s apparently fine for a parent to take a minor to a movie that features total nudity, rape, sodomy or body dismemberment or to see a vulgar comedian or racist speaker … but not a drag show.

Those are some interesting family values.

I wouldn’t take young kids to a raunchy drag display. But I also wouldn’t take them to a much raunchier, sexually explicit film or vile performer. Yet the governor is trying to disallow only one of those things. (While proclaiming “Freedom!”)

The inconsistency is obvious. So is the governor’s odd obsession with drag queens. But let’s say you’re also a member of the drag-queen obsession club. Try putting your obsession aside for a moment to consider the legal propriety of what the governor’s bureaucratic henchmen are doing here.

They’re going after the nonprofit charity that runs the venue — in this case, the Orlando Philharmonic — rather than the performers. Think about that.

The letter from DeSantis’ business-regulation department suggests felonious behavior of a “lewd and lascivious” nature took place inside the Plaza Live theater. Yet nobody was charged with such a thing. Nobody, in fact, was charged with anything.

So the state is trying to blame a nonprofit for being complicit in a crime that didn’t take place. Lawyers should be able to laugh this out of court.

There’s more legal nonsense. Another part of its letter suggests the theater didn’t warn parents that parts of the show might be inappropriate for minors. Yet the very next paragraph acknowledges the theater had signs on the door that said: “While we are not restricting access to anyone under 18 please be advised that some may think the context is not appropriate for under 18.”

So the state’s argument is basically: The theater did nothing to warn parents about the content … except for all the things we know it did to warn parents about the content.

It’s like the Mad Hatter got a law degree and started working for the state.

Another key point: The group DeSantis is targeting — the Philharmonic’s foundation — merely operates the theater, renting out the space to most any group willing to pay. That includes singers, comedians, drag shows and conservative political groups like the one last year whose featured speaker was (wait for it) Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It has operated that way for years, allowing this same Christmas drag show to rent its facilities in previous years. Other Florida theaters have done the same. It was only during this past Christmas season, when Fox News’ Tucker Carlson began fuming about the show, that the state decided to claim something improper was going on.

The reality is that the Phil doesn’t use ideological values to decide who can rent its facility. It uses free-market ones — the same ones the governor claims to espouse.

The city of Orlando owns the theater. And the Philharmonic set up a foundation to run it to generate money for its symphony, with a large part of those revenues coming from concessions.

Yet now the Philharmonic may be forced to pay lawyers to fight off this economic threat. That part ticks me off. Especially because just this past weekend, the Phil held a fundraiser where generous donors of all political stripes reached into their own pockets to help this cultural gem continue playing classical music for all of Central Florida.

I emceed the event, which featured a celebrated pianist and virtuosa violinist and raised more than $300,000 for the orchestra that sends musicians to children’s hospitals and underprivileged schools.

That’s who the governor decided to target. Not the people who actually put on the show. (Probably because he knew that, while the performers may have offended the governor’s sensibilities, they had broken no laws.)

The governor’s attempt to selectively target a venue owner will probably be rejected in court like many of his other actions. (See: “Florida pays lawyers $675/hour to defend unconstitutional legislation. They keep losing.”)

I hope some savvy law firm agrees to take this case pro bono so that the Phil doesn’t have to waste its valuable resources doing so.

When I first wrote about this issue last month, I challenged those who defend DeSantis, no matter what he does, to finish this sentence:

“I believe parents shouldn’t be allowed to take their own teen to a drag show — but should be allowed to take even younger children to shows or movies featuring rape, sodomy or dismemberment — because ….”

Few took me up on it. But the handful who did said something like: Well, I don’t think parents should be allowed to do either of those things.

OK. So first of all, admit you’re not really in favor of freedom or parental choice. You want government to decide what parents can see and discuss with their children.

Second: I don’t believe you. Because you and the governor aren’t screaming bloody murder about graphic violence and depictions of heterosexual sex that parents can take their kids to see in Florida. Only when drag queens are involved.

So we see who you are.

Scott Maxwell is the Orlando Sentinel’s “Taking Names” columnist.