A federal judge has dismissed the Walt Disney Company’s lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was accused of waging a “relentless campaign to weaponize government power” against the company in retaliation for its opposition to what critics have called the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
After Disney’s public objections to the “Parental Rights in Education Act” in 2022, the governor and members of his administration ignited a feud that escalated with his administration taking control of the district in which its sprawling park campus operates.
That law – which Republican lawmakers emulated in states across the country and in Congress – has threatened to freeze classroom speech involving LGBT+ people and issues as well as discussion of LGBT+ students, school staff and their families, fuelling anti-discrimination campaigns and lawsuits amid a wave of legislative threats to LGBT+ Americans. That measure and the governor’s high-profile feud with a massively influential right-wing target also helped fuel his failed bid for the Republican nomination for president.
Disney alleged in its federal lawsuit that the DeSantis administration’s dissolution of a decades-old municipal district that allowed the company to effectively control its own land use was a retaliatory political move and an unconstitutional threat to free speech.
In a decision on Wednesday, US District Judge Allen Winsor determined that Disney lacks standing to sue the government, arguing that a “plaintiff cannot bring a free speech challenge by claiming that the lawmakers who passed it acted with a constitutionally impermissible purpose.”
After weeks of pressure from LGBT+ advocates and Disney employees urging company leadership to publicly lobby against it, then-CEO Bob Chapek announced in March 2022 that the company would oppose the bill and suspend its political donations in the state.
He stated that the company would “immediately” begin supporting efforts to combat similar legislation elsewhere and pause “all political donations” in the state pending a review of the company’s political giving.
One month later, Governor DeSantis expanded the scope of a special legislative session on the state’s redistricting plans to also consider the “termination of all special districts that were enacted in Florida prior to 1968” – including the municipal taxing and government district that allows Disney to tax and regulate its sprawling park and resort properties in the Orlando area.
The Reedy Creek Improvement District was first created in 1967 to give Disney control of its land use, zoning rules and public services without putting a tax burden on Florida residents.
With Disney as the primary landowner for the district, the company is largely responsible for all costs of those municipal services that otherwise would fall under the jurisdiction of county and local governments, including the taxpayers who live within them. In effect, Disney used the Reedy Creek board to tax itself to foot the bill for all of its municipal needs.
The governor and his administration insisted that the initial proposal was intended to block what they called “special privileges” for big business in the state, but fundraising messages promoting Reedy Creek’s demise explicitly mentioned Disney’s opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
“Disney thought they ruled Florida,” an email from the DeSantis campaign said on 19 April 2022. “They even tried to attack me to advance their woke agenda. Now, parents see Disney for what it is. And now is the time to put the power back in the hands of Floridians and out of the pockets of woke executives.”
Moments after the new board voted to effectively strip Disney control of its Florida resort, the company filed a federal lawsuit against the governor and state officials alleging a “targeted campaign of government retaliation”.
“Disney regrets that it has come to this,” the lawsuit states.
“At the governor’s bidding, the state’s oversight board has purported to ‘void’ publicly noticed and duly agreed development contracts, which had laid the foundation for billions of Disney’s investment dollars and thousands of jobs,” the complaint alleges. “This government action was patently retaliatory, patently anti-business, and patently unconstitutional.”
Disney, a political and economic heavyweight in the state, is likely to appeal the latest decision.
“This is an important case with serious implications for the rule of law, and it will not end here,” according to a statement from a Disney spokesperson for. “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.”
Judge Winsor dismissed the case “without prejudice,” which leaves Disney an opportunity to file another complaint against the governor.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Florida’s legislative and political threats to LGBT+ people in the state – which prompted a “state of emergency” from some of the nation’s largest civil rights groups – have accelerated, with sweeping proposals that critics warn are intended to erase LGBT+ from public life.
This year, Florida lawmakers are considering expanded bans to transition healthcare as well as a measure that opponents are calling the “LGBT+ Erasure Act” that to regulate the definition of “sex” across government agencies and issue state identification that only lists sex assigned at birth. Another measure, named by opponents as the “Don’t Say LGBTQ+” bill, would ban state and local governments from honouring employees’ pronouns if they do not align with a person’s assigned sex at birth, among other measures.
This week, Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles revoked the ability for transgender people in the state to update gender markers on their driver’s licenses and ID cards, which Human Rights Campaign president Kelley Robinson characterised as part of a nationwide campaign to “humiliate, harass, and use policy to eliminate transgender people from public life.”