Disney and Florida in Legal Battle Over Self-Governance and Free Speech Rights

Disney and the state of Florida are embroiled in a legal battle over the company’s right to self-govern its theme parks and resorts in the state. The feud began in 2022 when the state legislature passed a bill restricting discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Disney opposed the bill, which was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis in March.[0] In retaliation, DeSantis stripped Disney of its self-governing power and dissolved the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which oversaw Disney’s operations.[1] He then appointed a new board aligned with his administration to oversee the company.[2]

Disney fought back by striking a multi-decade deal with the outgoing board members days before the new board took over.[3] The agreement effectively stripped the new board of many of its powers by requiring it to obtain permission from Disney before making any changes.[1] In addition, Disney was given permission to build another theme park on the unused land it currently possesses under the governing authority.[0] Though the board gave public notice of the proposed changes in the proper forums, DeSantis’s office did not know about it until the agreement had already been signed.[0]

The dispute escalated when Disney sued DeSantis, accusing him of weaponizing government power to punish the company for exercising its constitutionally protected free speech rights. In response, the board picked by DeSantis to oversee Disney’s operations voted to sue the company, escalating the feud further.

Disney’s lawsuit asks the court to reinforce the agreement enacted by the previous board that allows the company to make decisions for the special district without the board’s approval, such as approving new projects and selling development rights to other landowners. The lawsuit would try to uphold the new board’s move to invalidate Disney’s development agreement with the Reedy Creek board. The agreement largely transferred much of the district’s control over Disney property decisions to the company.[3]

The legal battle has invited criticism from some of DeSantis’s fellow Republicans and potential opponents for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, including former President Trump. The ex-governor of New Jersey.[4] Chris Christie said it was not “conservative” to tell companies what they can and cannot say, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said DeSantis had “gone on the wrong path.”[5]

Disney’s fight with DeSantis is not just about self-governance.[0] It is also a fight for freedom of speech against DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ censorship.[6] While the complaint heavily relies on First Amendment language, it is not primarily centered around the theory of free speech.[6] Rather, Disney centers a claim that Florida violated its rights under the Constitution’s contracts clause by voiding agreements that would’ve preserved its right to self-governance as its main argument for retaining the right to its land and properties.[6]

The legal battle is far from over, and it remains to be seen how it will be resolved.

0. “Disney’s Lawsuit Against Ron DeSantis Could Get Very Weird” The New Republic, 28 Apr. 2023, https://newrepublic.com/article/172292/disney-desantis-lawsuit-reedy-creek

1. “DeSantis claps back at Disney: ‘They’re not going to have their own government'” Fox News, 1 May. 2023, https://www.foxnews.com/us/desantis-claps-back-disney-going-government

2. “Disney v DeSantis: Why the happiest place on Earth is suing Florida’s governor” BBC, 26 Apr. 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-65407134

3. “DeSantis’ board to countersue Disney in state court” WESH 2 Orlando, 1 May. 2023, https://www.wesh.com/article/desantis-board-disney-lawsuit/43753413

4. “Cracks showing in Florida GOP support for DeSantis’ war with Disney” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 27 Apr. 2023, https://www.heraldtribune.com/story/news/politics/2023/04/26/cracks-showing-in-florida-gop-support-for-desantis-war-with-disney/70156637007/

5. “DeSantis-backed board countersues Disney” The Hill, 1 May. 2023, https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/3981622-desantis-florida-board-countersues-disney

6. “Disney DeSantis lawsuit explained: Why the approach is troubling.” Slate, 28 Apr. 2023, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2023/04/disney-desantis-lawsuit-explained.html

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