Judge tosses Disney lawsuit alleging political retaliation by DeSantis

A federal judge on Wednesday tossed Disney’s lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) that accused him and other officials of unconstitutionally retaliating against the company for political reasons.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, an appointee of former President Trump, ruled Disney lacked legal standing to sue DeSantis and that the company’s free speech claims also failed on the merits.

The ruling hands a major win to DeSantis in his escalating legal fight with the entertainment conglomerate, which has a major presence in the state through its flagship Disney World property.

A lengthy battle between Disney and the prominent Florida governor began after DeSantis signed the Parental Rights in Education Act, derided by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, in March 2022. The law restricts instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, preventing teachers for kindergarten through third grade from lessons on these topics.

It also prohibits all teachers through 12th grade from instruction on these topics that is not “age appropriate.”

Disney’s then-CEO Bob Chapek criticized the legislation after the Florida Legislature passed it, calling it a “challenge to basic human rights” and vowing to work to repeal the law and support advocacy groups fighting against similar bills in other states.

In the aftermath of Disney’s criticism, Florida legislators moved to revoke a special status that the company has had giving it some self-governing power for the 25,000-acre district surrounding its theme parks.

DeSantis signed that legislation dissolving the district, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, last February, creating a new board.

Disney then sued DeSantis, Florida’s commerce secretary and the members of the new board, accusing them of politically retaliating against the company in violation of Disney’s free speech rights.

Winsor granted DeSantis’s motion to dismiss Disney’s lawsuit by finding that the company had no legal standing, meaning the right to sue.

“Disney has not alleged any specific actions the new board took (or will take) because of the Governor’s alleged control,” Winsor wrote in his 17-page ruling.

“In fact, Disney has not alleged any specific injury from any board action,” he continued. “Its alleged injury, as discussed above, is its operating under a board it cannot control. That injury would exist whether or not the Governor controlled the board, meaning an injunction precluding the Governor from influencing the board would not redress Disney’s asserted injury.”

Winsor dismissed Disney’s claims against Florida’s secretary of commerce on similar grounds. Only the company’s claims against the members of the new board could reach the merits, Winsor ruled.

But those fail anyway, the judge said, ruling that First Amendment circuit precedent forecloses Disney’s lawsuit.

“At the end of the day, under the law of this Circuit, ‘courts shouldn’t look to a law’s legislative history to find an illegitimate motivation for an otherwise constitutional statute.’ … Because that is what Disney seeks here, its claim fails as a matter of law,” Winsor wrote.

DeSantis press secretary Jeremy Redfern praised the ruling in a statement, saying “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,” he said. “In short — as long predicted, case dismissed.”

The Hill has reached out to Disney for comment.

The Florida Board of Education voted in April to expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law to bar instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades.

This story was updated at 5:35 p.m.

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