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Judge tosses Disney’s free speech lawsuit against Ron DeSantis; Disney appeals

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged a long and tense battle with Disney over LGBTQ+ issues.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
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A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed Walt Disney Co.’s 1st Amendment lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, delivering a legal victory to the Republican leader who recently ended his presidential campaign. Disney swiftly appealed the judge’s ruling.

Disney sued DeSantis in April after the conservative governor and his allies in the state took control of the special district that governs Walt Disney World. Disney had argued that DeSantis and state Republicans had waged a concerted campaign to punish Disney for exercising its speech rights to criticize Florida’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

The governing body, formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, gave Disney unusual powers in the area, effectively serving as the company’s own municipal government. DeSantis signed legislation that allowed the state to take control of the district and replace it with a tourism oversight board made up of the governor’s own appointees.

Disney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have been battling over the company’s self-governing powers in the area of the state that includes Walt Disney World Resort.

April 26, 2023

DeSantis’ attorneys moved to have Disney’s case dismissed late last year, arguing that the Burbank entertainment giant did not have standing to sue the governor. The judge agreed, determining that Disney “lacks standing” to sue DeSantis and that its claims against the governor’s renamed Central Florida Tourism Oversight District “fail on merits.”

The judge cited existing law stating that “when a statute is facially constitutional, a plaintiff cannot bring a free-speech challenge by claiming that the lawmakers who passed it acted with a constitutionally impermissible purpose.”

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“As to the Governor, Disney alleges traceability on two bases: the Governor’s power to appoint CFTOD board members and the Governor’s ‘actual control’ over the CFTOD board,” U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor wrote in his order.

“Neither basis works. ... Because Disney seeks injunctive relief, it must allege an imminent future injury ... and it has not alleged facts showing that any imminent future appointments will contribute to its harm,” the order reads. “The analysis could be different if the Governor had not yet made any appointments. But as things stand, if this court enjoined future appointments, Disney would face the same situation it faces now: it would be operating under the CFTOD board, over which it has no control.”

Disney appealed the order on Thursday, sending the case to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a statement provided to The Times, a Disney spokesperson deemed the legal dispute “an important case with serious implications to the rule of law” and insisted “it will not end here.”

“If left unchallenged, this would set a dangerous precedent and give license to states to weaponize their official powers to punish the expression of political viewpoints they disagree with,” the spokesperson said. “We are determined to press forward with our case.”

Appointees of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are seeking communications between Disney and local media, as well as documents related to the company’s position on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Nov. 17, 2023

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Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Chair Martin Garcia hailed the ruling.

“I’m delighted that this lawsuit, which was nothing more than a distraction, is now behind us,” Garcia said in a statement. “Our board and the district will now continue to make the appropriate changes to operate and function as an independent government agency to promote transparency and accountability while bringing more prosperity to more people in Florida.”

Disney’s feud with DeSantis erupted in 2022 when — under mounting pressure from employees — the House of Mouse spoke out against Florida legislation referred to by critics as “Don’t Say Gay.” Disney argued that the law — which prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade — “could be used to unfairly target gay, lesbian, nonbinary and transgender kids and families.”

DeSantis responded to the rebuke by taking several steps to allow the state to assume control of the area encompassing Disney’s Orlando kingdom. The two parties have been engaged in a power struggle ever since.

Disney filed counterclaims in its Florida legal dispute, seeking damages after DeSantis allies sought to strip its special privileges covering Walt Disney World.

Aug. 18, 2023

“We’re going to make sure we’re fighting back when people are threatening our parents and threatening our kids,” DeSantis said during a March 2022 news conference.

Disney’s federal lawsuit, filed in Tallahassee, focused on the governor’s alleged violation of free speech rights by way of retaliation.

“A targeted campaign of government retaliation — orchestrated at every step by Gov. DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech — now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights,” Disney said in its complaint.

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