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Disney Lawsuit Against DeSantis Dismissed by Federal Judge

(Bloomberg) -- Walt Disney Co.’s lawsuit accusing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis of politically retaliating against the company was dismissed by a federal judge.

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US District Judge Allen Winsor in Tallahassee, Florida, on Wednesday granted DeSantis’ request to throw out the company’s suit, saying Disney lacked standing to sue the governor. Winsor also said a law stripping the company of control of the municipal district in central Florida that includes Disney World was constitutional even if it was aimed at punishing free speech.

The ruling is a major setback for Disney in its ongoing feud with DeSantis. Disney sued DeSantis in April after a new governing board for the district appointed by the Republican governor voted to void land-use contracts signed by the company.

A Disney spokesman said the company would keep fighting.

“This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here,” the spokesman said. “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. We are determined to press forward with our case.”

Disney claimed DeSantis was engaging in a campaign of retaliation against the company for speaking out against a state law that bars classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. The governor’s actions violated its constitutional right to free speech, Disney said.

DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern said the ruling reinforces the declaration made by the governor when he created the new board: “The Corporate Kingdom is over.”

“The federal court’s decision made it clear that Governor DeSantis was correct: Disney is still just one of many corporations in the state, and they do not have a right to their own special government.,” Redfern said.

The dispute had been political fodder for DeSantis in his campaign for the Republican 2024 presidential nomination. He withdrew from the race in late January and endorsed former President Donald Trump. At a November event, DeSantis claimed to have “won the battle” with Disney and said “the fact that we were able to stand up to them, that had reverberations across this country.”

But his apparent vendetta against one of Florida’s largest employers also cut against his business-friendly image and was heavily criticized by major Republican donors and political rivals. Soon after Disney filed its suit, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, now Trump’s sole rival for the Republican nomination, released a video suggesting the company move its 70,000 Florida jobs to her home state.

Winsor said Disney failed to show that its alleged injury — operating under a board it can’t control — was traceable to DeSantis’ control.

“That injury would exist whether or not the governor controlled the board,” the judge said.

He also said the Disney’s claims that its First Amendment rights were violated failed because of legal precedents holding that an unconstitutional motive — punishing free speech — doesn’t invalidate an otherwise constitutional law.

“The Legislature can determine the structure of Florida’s special improvement districts,” Winsor said. “Disney does not argue that the First Amendment (or anything else) would preclude the Legislature from enacting the challenged laws without a retaliatory motivation.”

The ruling does not affect a parallel state lawsuit between Disney and DeSantis allies, which is ongoing.

Winsor, a Donald Trump appointee, previously upheld the law that sparked the feud between Disney and DeSantis.

The case is Walt Disney Parks and Resorts US Inc. v. DeSantis, 4:23-cv-00163, US District Court, Northern District of Florida (Tallahassee).

--With assistance from Erik Larson, Thomas Buckley and Felipe Marques.

(Updates with comment from DeSantis spokesman.)

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