Disney’s DEI Efforts Targeted by Trump Aide’s Legal Group Amid Proxy Fight

Disney’s efforts to boost diversity are under attack ahead of a key shareholder vote to elect its board that will shape the direction of the company.

Stephen Miller’s America First Legal foundation, in a letter sent to Disney’s top brass March 27, claims that initiatives to boost diversity and inclusion violate civil rights laws and have tanked the entertainment giant’s value. (Year-to-date, Disney’s stock has risen more than 30 percent.)

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The group asks for the appointment of an independent monitor to investigate the issue, inspection of internal records and distribution of the missive to all shareholders in what appears to be a bid to undermine chief executive Bob Iger in a proxy fight against Nelson Peltz.

In recent years, Disney has been criticized by conservatives for adding racially diverse and gay characters in movies. In a Nov. 29 interview at The New York Times‘ DealBook event, weeks after The Marvels underperformed in its box office bow en route to $206 million globally, Iger acknowledged the impact of Disney’s culture war critics on its operations. “Creators lost sight of what their No. 1 objective needed to be,” he said. “We have to entertain first. It’s not about messages.”

Peltz has seized on the company’s central casting in the culture wars, commenting on the focus of women heroines in The Marvels and the majority Black cast in Black Panther. “Why do I have to have a Marvel that’s all women? Not that I have anything against women, but why do I have to do that?” he told the Financial Times. “Why can’t I have Marvels that are both? Why do I need an all-Black cast?”

America First, founded by Trump adviser Miller, claims the creative direction of some of those movies can be traced back to Disney’s implementation of inclusion standards, which outline criteria intended to boost representation of “underrepresented groups” (the standards do not explicitly mention race or gender). It claims they establish discriminatory hiring quotas, pointing to one provision requiring that at least half of producer and writing staff come from such groups.

These standards, as well as programs intended to increase representation of minorities in senior-level roles, are used to “unlawfully deprive whites, men, heterosexuals, Jews” and other disfavored groups of employment opportunities and have led to some consumers turning away from Disney programming due to the emphasis of diversity in some titles, America First Legal says. The letter cites a racist backlash over the casting of a Black actress in the main role in the 2023 live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (it grossed $570 million), blowback to the latest Star Wars film trilogy and the inclusion of a lesbian relationship in Lightyear.

“The evidence is that Disney’s Board and management team are sacrificing the Company’s reputation and goodwill to serve a highly idiosyncratic and controversial political agenda that is offensive to the vast majority of the Company’s core customers,” states the letter. “This conduct, which is motivated by something other than the best interests of the Company’s shareholders, lacks a rational business purpose.”

America First points to an article penned by an anonymous employee after the company publicly opposed the passage of a Florida bill restricting instruction on gender identity and sexuality in the classroom for young students. “Disney isn’t interested in allowing a genuine debate or conversation to occur, it simply wants to satisfy the DEI activists so they stop making trouble and bad headlines for the company,” the Quillette article reads.

The letter was sent to Disney’s board on the same day the company reached a settlement with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to resolve litigation for control of its special tax district, which was intended to retaliate against the company. Like America First, the Republican governor attacked the company for “woke” decisions around content.

The foundation also faults current leadership for a lawsuit filed by Gina Carano for discrimination and wrongful termination after she was allegedly fired from The Mandalorian over a series of social media posts. Elon Musk, who commented that Iger should be “fired immediately” after Disney pulled ads from X and joked on Monday that he’s joining the company as its “chief DEI officer,” is funding the litigation.

“Disney’s leadership appears to have abandoned its roots — and most notably, its shareholders — in hopes of placating an insatiable activist movement that aims to radically reshape the Disney brand into something that is completely inconsistent with its history,” said America First executive director Gene Hamilton in a statement.

To get its message out, America First Legal has also been running ads on Twitter asking “Disney employees or contractors” to contact the foundation. “Are you a victim as a result of illegal DEI policies at Disney?” reads the ad.

In February, the foundation wrote a letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission urging the agency to investigate Disney and its subsidiaries for discrimination. A month later, it filed a lawsuit on behalf of a writer against CBS Studios and parent Paramount for allegedly carrying diversity quotas that discriminate against straight white men in what may be the opening legal salvo against efforts to boost diversity and inclusion in Hollywood in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision knocking down affirmative action.

The letter sent March 27 cites the Supreme Court’s ruling in that case in which it clarified that a “benefit provided to some … but not to others necessarily advantages the former group at the expense of the latter.” The America First Legal foundation claims a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and sex. It stresses that Disney shareholders have “suffered a bloodbath” because of the board’s “aggressive implementation of DEI policies and its decision to infuse controversial political and social principles into the Company’s products and operations that are utterly misaligned with the preferences and tastes of Disney’s core customers — traditional families and children.”

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