A federal judge has dealt a major setback to Disney in its fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, throwing out the company’s First Amendment lawsuit.
Disney argued that the governor retaliated against the company for its protected speech when he dissolved a special tax district that governs the company’s Orlando theme parks.
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But in a ruling on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor granted the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding that Disney did not have standing to sue the governor and that Disney cannot challenge a facially constitutional action by claiming a retaliatory motive.
A spokesman for DeSantis, Jeremy Redfern, issued a statement declaring that “the Corporate Kingdom is over.”
“The days of Disney controlling its own government and being placed above the law are long gone,” Redfern said. “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. In short — as long predicted, case dismissed.”
In its own statement, Disney indicated it will appeal the decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here,” a Disney spokesperson 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.”
DeSantis has argued that Disney “crossed the line” when it opposed the state’s Parental Rights in Education law, which restricts classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. In response, the governor and the legislature quickly moved to eliminate the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a 55-year-old agency intended to foster the development of Disney World and the other Disney parks.
“This is as clear a case of retaliation and weaponization of government as this Court is ever likely to see,” Disney’s lawyers said in their complaint.
Under the Reedy Creek arrangement, Disney had enjoyed almost total control over roads, bridges, water quality, fire service, planning and utilities, over a nearly 40-square-mile area.
Last February, DeSantis moved to take over, appointing five board members to oversee the rechristened Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.
Disney has argued that the moves violated its First Amendment rights. In seeking to throw out the lawsuit, the state argued that its authority to establish governing districts is not constrained by the First Amendment. In other words, according to the state, DeSantis’ motives were irrelevant.
“The Speech Clause imposes no constraint on the State’s exercise of that responsibility — no matter the State’s motivation for doing so,” the state argued.
Just before DeSantis’ appointees took over, the Disney-controlled board approved agreements that allowed Disney to undertake major development over the next decade, including a new theme park, two minor theme parks, as well as office buildings, retail and restaurants.
The DeSantis board quickly moved to rescind those agreements, arguing that they were invalid. Disney and DeSantis are fighting over that issue in state court in Orange County. A hearing on that lawsuit is set for March 12.
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