Yes! But just because Disney can legally do something as a private company doesn’t mean it’s in Disney’s best interest.
In September 2017 the Los Angeles Times published a series of stories detailing the Walt Disney Company’s business ties with the city of Anaheim. The investigative stories were about whether Disney was paying its fair share in Anaheim and detailed the “subsidies, incentives, rebates and protections from future taxes” that Disney had secured from the city.
Disney then barred Los Angeles Times reporters from its advance movie screenings, such as Thor Ragnarok. On November 3 the Los Angeles Times published this statement:
“Disney’s actions, which include an indefinite ban on any interaction with The Times, are antithetical to the principles of a free press and set a dangerous precedent in a time of already heightened hostility toward journalists ….”
But Disney alleged last week that the Times “showed a complete disregard for basic journalistic standards.” “Despite our sharing numerous indisputable facts with the reporter, several editors, and the publisher over many months, the Times moved forward with a biased and inaccurate series, wholly driven by a political agenda,” Disney said in a statement. “We’ve had a long relationship with the L.A. Times. We hope they will adhere to balanced reporting in the future.”
As powerful as it is (Disney is the world’s second largest media conglomerate in terms of revenue, after Comcast), Disney isn’t King of the World. On November 7, four critics groups hit back by pledging to disqualify Disney’s films from awards consideration until the blackout is lifted. They included the the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics.
— LA Film Critics (@LAFilmCritics) November 7, 2017
Other news outlets, including The New York Times and the A.V. Club, said they were boycotting advance screenings of Disney films in solidarity. Remember that Disney doesn’t just make children’s movies like Frozen and Moana. It controls the Marvel, Lucasfilm (Star Wars) and Pixar studios, as well. In addition to its movie assets, Disney owns television assets like ABC, ESPN, and even half of A&E Networks!
The same day, Disney reversed its decision to bar The Los Angeles Times from press screenings of its movies.
Does the First Amendment Apply to Private Companies Like Disney Punishing the Press?
No. The First Amendment, like all of the Bill of Rights, applies to restrain conduct by the government, not by private individuals or companies. The free speech clause of the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech” (emphasis added). The text has always been understood only to restrain federal and local governments from prohibiting or punishing speech. For example, the First Amendment does not protect employees who are fired for their social media posts by private employers.
What do you think? Will any company become so powerful that it can successfully bar the press from its events without harmful consequences for itself? Does barring the press ever work out well?