GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The yearlong battle between Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney will be fought in federal court.
The California-based entertainment giant filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday alleging that DeSantis and his hand-picked board retaliated against the company and violated Disney’s First Amendment rights, among other claims. Disney filed the lawsuit just minutes after a board appointed by the GOP governor voted to invalidate agreements giving Disney authority over its Florida-based theme parks.
“This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional,” asserts Disney in the 77-page lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Florida. “But the Governor and his allies have made clear they do not care and will not stop.”
“Disney now is forced to defend itself against a State weaponizing its power to inflict political punishment,” the lawsuit states.
The two opposing moves Wednesday represent an escalation in the ongoing battle between the Florida governor and Disney. The fight was sparked last year after Disney publicly criticized Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature for approving a bill banning teachers from leading classroom lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation, known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
DeSantis, who supported the legislation and signed it into law, later pushed Florida lawmakers to strip Disney of its self-governing status that the company enjoyed for decades at its central Florida theme parks. Disney remains one of Florida’s biggest employers, with more than 70,000 employees at its theme parks near Orlando.
The governor also previously appointed a new board to oversee Disney’s Florida district. But in a surprise move last February, the Central Florida board that had been controlled by Disney quietly approved a pact that gave Disney authority over its parks. The DeSantis administration only learned about the agreement in March and scrambled to respond.
Some Republicans criticized DeSantis over the Disney flap, claiming that the governor — who is expected to jump into the 2024 presidential race — was outmaneuvered by the corporation. Former President Donald Trump, who already announced his presidential bid and is known for fighting with rivals, called DeSantis’ feud with Disney a “political stunt” and lamented that the entire episode is unnecessary.
On Wednesday, the DeSantis-appointed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Board of Supervisors, during a meeting in Lake Buena Vista, voted to invalidate the February pact in an attempt to wrestle back control of Disney. But that move may be on hold as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts.
Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Alan Lawson, an attorney hired by the district, said that the old board attempted to act without the legal authority to act.
“Everyone must play by the same rules,” Lawson said. “Disney was openly and legally granted unique and special privilege, that privilege of running its own local government for a time. That era has ended.”
Jeremy T. Redfern, deputy press secretary for DeSantis, responded to questions in an email stating: “We are unaware of any legal right that a company has to operate its own government or maintain special privileges not held by other businesses in the state. This lawsuit is yet another unfortunate example of their hope to undermine the will of the Florida voters and operate outside the bounds of the law.”
Representatives of Disney did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In its lawsuit, Disney stated that it regretted that the ongoing fight has led to a federal lawsuit.
“Governor DeSantis and his allies paid no mind to the governing structure that facilitated Reedy Creek’s successful development until one year ago, when the Governor decided to target Disney,” the lawsuit states. “There is no room for disagreement about what happened here: Disney expressed its opinion on state legislation and was then punished by the State for doing so.”
The lawsuit repeatedly claims that DeSantis targeted Disney and is punishing the company for speaking out against the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It adds that DeSantis and the new board are violating Disney’s constitutional and the First Amendment rights, adding that once the “political story” was set, the retaliation only became worse, the lawsuit read.
“Indeed, Governor DeSantis has reaffirmed, again and again, that the State campaign to punish Disney for its speech about House Bill 1557 has been a coordinated and deliberate one from the start,” according to the lawsuit. “Disney’s commentary on House Bill 1557 was, he claimed, a ‘declaration of war’ and ‘a textbook example of when a corporation should stay out of politics.’”