Florida should respect our customers and stop muzzling our businesses | Opinion

The American economic success story is really a story of countless successful companies listening to their customers and responding to market opportunity. Free enterprise is dependent on the freedom of business leaders to go where their customers are. When powerful politicians threaten business leaders with speech codes outlawing entire categories of conversation, free enterprise becomes much less free.

I know this well, running a chain of hotels committed to sustainably serving a state as diverse as Florida, with a staff to match. Legacy Vacation Resorts is proud of its commitment to environmental sustainability, represented in part by our Certified B Corp status, and to improving the communities we serve around the country and in Florida — where the hotel industry, serving tourists, is a key driver of the economy.

Unfortunately, the American recipe for economic resilience and growth remains vulnerable to those eager to throw away this marketplace success for political gain. I’ve seen it abroad and, unfortunately, am now seeing it in “the free state of Florida,” where speech codes limit how businesses, including our own can operate.

Unfortunately, the state’s so-called Stop WOKE Act represents the cresting wave of unconstitutional legislation threatening to swamp the country in a dangerous effort to target speech that political leaders don’t like. The law limits an employer from, for example, advancing the concept that we should recognize our implicit biases and try to overcome them or advocating for a mentorship program for women and people of color when those groups are underrepresented among the leadership of the company.

Instead, the law dismissively labels these ideas as “woke” in an effort to obscure the anti-speech, anti-freedom intent behind it, chilling a broad spectrum of speech and normalizing intolerance.

Florida’s law is especially flagrant in its unconstitutionality, not even trying to disguise its viewpoint discrimination. And it is unique in attempting to censor the speech of private business, allowing Florida’s politicians to substitute themselves for consumers and the marketplace. Customers should continue to vote with their pocketbooks instead of letting politicians veto their preferences.

I’m heartened to see a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality. If the law stands, it would have a deeply detrimental impact on our ability to do business, nationally and in Florida. As someone who runs a large business in the hotel industry, there is mounting evidence that Florida’s ongoing attacks on constitutional rights is prompting tourists to cancel trips.

While companies such as Disney and the Tampa Bay Rays have been in the headlines, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. This threat impacts the entire private sector.

No matter our politics, we should all be able to agree that the government has zero place banning entire sections of the dictionary from a business owner’s vocabulary. That’s true whether business owners want to talk about supply chain failures, the war in Ukraine, or health care coverage – and it’s also true when they want to talk about social justice including diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace and beyond, which we view as fundamental to the success of our businesses. If what we stand for does not resonate with the public, the free market will leave definitive proof in the form of falling profits and staff walking off the job.

Unfortunately, the Stop WOKE Act is but one of several high-profile efforts in Florida and elsewhere aiming to restrict freedom of expression in a dangerous gambit to silence critics. Consider the book removals that have occurred in school libraries in Escambia County and the growing threat to ban books in more school districts in the state.

Consider, too, the rising interest by DeSantis and others to roll back the “actual malice” standard for defamation claims in a move to insulate themselves from criticism — changes roundly decried by those on the political right and left. There are also laws targeting values-based investing as “woke capital” and restrictions on protests at the Florida Capitol without a state agency determining the protest aligns with their mission.

The U.S. economy leads the world because businesses and consumers are free to speak their minds and spend their money in the ways they deem best. It’s not a politician’s job to control our speech or our businesses — it’s their job to maintain a level playing field so that our democracy and economy can prosper.

Who would want to mess with that?

Jared Meyers is the owner and chairman of Legacy Vacation Resorts and Salt Palm Development. He is also the co-founder of Florida for Good, an initiative to promote corporate responsibility in Florida.