Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in Ongoing Feud: Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board Authorizes Lawsuit Against Disney

The ongoing feud between Walt Disney Company and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has taken yet another turn as the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board, appointed by DeSantis, has authorized a lawsuit against the entertainment giant.[0] This comes just days after Disney filed a federal lawsuit against DeSantis, alleging that he had orchestrated a targeted campaign of government retaliation against the company for speaking out against a piece of legislation it found troubling. The legislation in question is the Parental Rights in Education bill, also known as “Don’t Say Gay,” which restricts discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom.[1]

Disney alleges that DeSantis has violated its First Amendment rights by punishing the company for engaging in protected political speech. In response, the newly appointed board at the center of the feud is suing Disney, claiming that the company’s agreements with the previous board are procedurally and substantively improper under state law.[2] The agreements in question largely transferred much of the district’s control over Disney property decisions to the company.[3]

In essence, the complaint puts forth two primary legal arguments.[2] The first is that the DeSantis board’s repudiation of Disney and Reedy Creek’s recently signed agreements violate the U.S. Constitution’s Contracts Clause, which prohibits states from “impairing” contractual obligations with or among private parties.[2] The second is that DeSantis and the CFTOD’s actions violated Disney’s First Amendment rights, as they were motivated by a desire to retaliate against the company for engaging in protected political speech.

The fight began last year when Disney opposed Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation.[4] The governor and his allies then targeted the special tax district that had allowed Disney to essentially self-govern its Florida operations since the 1960s.[5] In response, Disney executed agreements with the outgoing Reedy Creek supervisors that ensured the company would be able to finish a long-term development program, including the construction of additional theme parks and hotels in the area.[6]

DeSantis effectively left Disney no choice other than to pursue its strong legal case against his alleged retaliation, and all his bragging about how hard he was sticking it to Disney will provide excellent evidence for the plaintiffs.[7] If DeSantis loses that case, we’re apt to end up with quite a different sort of corrupt deal: one in which everyone who matters understands that this is all just a performance, pantomime attacks that will inevitably get reversed in the courts and will achieve nothing for anyone except the politicians who indulge in it.[7]

Because Disney’s case is real, it will likely end up in discovery, which could yield damaging internal communications that undercut DeSantis’s excuse that this was just about revoking Disney’s special privileges in the name of good governance.[8] DeSantis has occasionally said that it is about leveling the playing field and treating Disney equally, but that is not what the state has done.[9] No other company in Florida that we know of has a local government board selected by the governor where the board and governor have threatened the company and set up a system where they have leverage to damage that company.[9]

The lawsuits between Disney and DeSantis highlight the tension between businesses and politicians when it comes to issues of free speech and political opposition.[10] While companies have the right to speak out against legislation they find troubling, politicians may feel the need to retaliate against them for opposing their policies. As the lawsuits progress, it will be interesting to see how the courts balance these competing interests and whether Disney will be able to successfully defend its First Amendment rights.

0. “Get a look at the countersuit against Disney just filed by the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District” The Business Journals, 1 May. 2023, https://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/news/2023/05/01/florida-lawsuit-disney-desantis-cftod-reedy-creek.html

1. “Florida House Passes Land Use Bill to Void Disney and Reedy Creek Development Agreement” WDW News Today, 3 May. 2023, https://wdwnt.com/2023/05/florida-house-passes-land-use-bill-to-void-disney-and-reedy-creek-development-agreement/

2. “Disney Should Thank DeSantis for His Big Dumb Mouth” New York Magazine, 3 May. 2023, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/05/disney-should-thank-ron-desantis-for-his-big-dumb-mouth.html

3. “DeSantis’ board files counter lawsuit against Disney” WESH 2 Orlando, 2 May. 2023, https://www.wesh.com/article/desantis-board-disney-lawsuit/43753413

4. “Ron DeSantis Is Losing Popularity Contest With Disney” Newsweek, 4 May. 2023, https://www.newsweek.com/ron-desantis-losing-popularity-contest-disney-1798329

5. “Key Florida business lobby isn’t picking sides in feud between its allies Disney, DeSantis” CNBC, 4 May. 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/05/04/disney-ron-desantis-feud-leaves-florida-chamber-of-commerce-silent.html

6. “DeSantis vs. Disney: Lawmakers strengthen governor’s hand in lawsuit” Tallahassee Democrat, 4 May. 2023, https://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/politics/2023/05/04/desantis-vs-disney-lawmakers-strengthen-governors-hand-in-lawsuit/70185571007/

7. “Opinion | DeSantis will acheive nothing with pointless Disney pantomime” The Washington Post, 5 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/05/05/desantis-florida-disney-parental-rights

8. “Opinion | How DeSantis accidentally handed Disney a potent weapon against him” The Washington Post, 2 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/05/02/ron-desantis-disney-lawsuit-wokeness-donald-trump-2024

9. “Disney v. Ron DeSantis: The Florida Lawsuit Explained” IndieWire, 2 May. 2023, https://www.indiewire.com/news/analysis/disney-ron-desantis-florida-lawsuit-explained-1234833597

10. “After Disney sues DeSantis, Central Florida Tourism Oversight District board to sue back” WFTV Orlando, 1 May. 2023, https://www.wftv.com/news/local/after-disney-sues-desantis-central-florida-tourism-oversight-district-board-sues-back/7N45KL2AZVDXPDF5L2KREDIPAI/

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