Disney Files Lawsuit Against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Alleging First Amendment Violations and Retaliation

The ongoing feud between Disney and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has escalated further, with Disney filing a lawsuit in a federal court stating that DeSantis has orchestrated a targeted campaign of government retaliation against the company. The lawsuit claims that DeSantis has used the machinery of the state to punish Disney for having spoken out against a piece of legislation that it found troubling, thereby violating Disney’s First Amendment rights. Disney alleges that DeSantis has threatened to punish the company for opposing a bill that prohibits public schools from covering homosexuality and gender identity, and has proposed that a prison or a competing theme park be built near Walt Disney World.

The battle between DeSantis and Florida’s largest employer escalated after the board that oversees Disney’s special taxing district countersued Disney.[0] The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors held a special meeting in response to Disney’s federal lawsuit filed last week.[1] Disney’s lawsuit seeks to have the agreements that it struck with the previous board deemed valid, and for the laws that were passed over the past year that effectively stripped control of the district from Disney to be declared invalid.

Disney is currently challenging a board vote and legislation that declared a development agreement void, while the latest legal move questions the validity of the same agreement.[2] For the time being, the cases will move forward concurrently in both state and federal court. If Disney wins on its constitutional claims and the court finds that actions undermining the company’s control of the district are unenforceable, the suit from the current board may become moot.

The dispute began last year when Disney spoke out against a Florida bill limiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by critics.[3] Soon after, the governor and his allies targeted the special tax district that has allowed Disney to essentially self-govern its Florida operations since the 1960s.[4] In February, however, before the takeover was completed, Disney executed agreements with the outgoing Reedy Creek supervisors that ensured that Disney would be able to finish a long-term development program, including the construction of additional theme parks and hotels in the area, and gave the company veto power over the exterior design and appearance of improvements to any property in the district.[5]

It seems that DeSantis and his team, who are paid by taxpayers, failed to notice all of this, even though journalists were present during the public meetings that happened before the agreements were made.[6] The complaint doesn’t dispute allegations of retaliation and instead focuses on deals Disney struck with the previous board before DeSantis took control.[2] Disney has a 30-year agreement that grants them developmental authority over the district. This agreement permits them to construct an additional theme park while placing limitations on the new board’s ability to make alterations to the expansive property without the company’s authorization.[2]

The lawsuit also alleges that the new district board sought to meet with Disney to find an amicable solution that would protect Disney’s economic investments while also providing more accountability, transparency, and cooperation between the parties involved.[7] The district’s lawsuit alleges several claims against Disney, including stating that the theme park “cobbled together” the pair of controversial agreements that appeared to strip the district’s new board of land development powers and drew the ire of the board and DeSantis.[7]

As the cases proceed in state and federal court, the battle between DeSantis and Disney continues to intensify, with both sides seeking to protect their interests. The dispute raises important questions about the balance of power between private companies and state governments, as well as the protection of First Amendment rights. It remains to be seen how the courts will rule in this contentious legal battle.

0. “How Bob Iger is leading Disney through its lawsuit against DeSantis” The Washington Post, 4 May. 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/05/04/bob-iger-disney-desantis-lawsuit/

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

2. ““We Have No Choice”: Disney and Florida Are Now Locked in a High-Stakes Legal Fight” Hollywood Reporter, 2 May. 2023, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/disney-florida-lawsuits-legal-fight-1235478238/

3. “What is the special district at the heart of Disney’s feud with Ron DeSantis?” The Economist, 1 May. 2023, https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2023/05/01/what-is-the-special-district-at-the-heart-of-disneys-feud-with-ron-desantis

4. “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

5. “DeSantis Board Countersues Disney: Here’s A Time Line Of Florida’s War With The Mouse Over Special District” Forbes, 2 May. 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisondurkee/2023/05/02/desantis-board-countersues-disney-heres-a-time-line-of-floridas-war-with-the-mouse-over-special-district/

6. “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

7. “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

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