Disney-DeSantis Suit in Federal Judge’s Hands Now

Entertainment giant says Florida governor infringed on First Amendment rights in battle over control of business district housing Disney World 

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A Florida judge will decide whether to dismiss Disney’s First Amendment lawsuit against the State of Florida, after hearing arguments from both sides Tuesday. 

The federal court in Tallahassee heard arguments from attorneys representing the entertainment giant and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seeking to dismiss the suit, as the two sides battle over the state’s retaliation against Disney’s criticism of a Florida statute.  

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The primary issue is whether the state improperly used its power to punish political speech. 

Disney is arguing that the DeSantis administration violated free speech laws when it stripped Disney of its control of the district that houses the Disney World park and resort in Orlando, now called the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District and controlled by a DeSantis-appointed board. 

DeSantis, who signed the law that paved the way for the move, has previously said it was in response to Disney’s criticism of a Florida law passed in March 2022 and known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Lawyers for DeSantis and the Central Florida board, which is also named in the suit, argued that Disney had no inherent right to the powers it had over the district (formerly known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District), which it was granted by statute in 1968, and that the effort to remove those powers is unrelated to political expression.

“These laws are, on their face and in substance, ordinary, standard, regulatory provisions that regulate, what? They regulate special districts. They don’t even regulate, directly, Disney,” attorney Charles Cooper, who represents the Central Florida board, said during Tuesday’s hearing. “That dooms their free speech claim.”

In an amicus brief filed on behalf of Disney, however, two former Republican governors — Arne Carlson of Minnesota and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey — said it was a clear case of retaliation. 

“[DeSantis] improperly employed the executive powers of his office, together with a compliant legislature, to punish [Disney] for taking a public position contrary to his own,” they wrote. “There is no serious question that Governor DeSantis’s actions are retributive.” 

DeSantis’s lawyers also claimed that the governor has “legislative immunity” and Disney has no standing to sue him. 

The specifics of the suit also include a clash over Disney’s development rights in the special district. After taking control of the Central Florida district in January, the newly appointed board said it would invalidate a development agreement Disney made while still in control of the area. The Central Florida board has separately filed its own suit against Disney over the development agreement, and a judge in August declined to dismiss that case.

The five-member board canceled its regular meeting scheduled for Tuesday, as it faces its own concerns over a scandal involving board member Bridget Ziegler.

Ziegler, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, an organization whose championing of parental rights in education primarily manifests itself in restrictions on LGBTQ+ speech and books, diversity programming and trans healthcare, was asked to resign her position on Sarasota County’s Board of Education Tuesday after it was revealed that her husband is being accused of rape by a woman with whom the couple had previously had a consensual sexual encounter. Ziegler is refusing to resign, and her husband denies the allegation.

U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor, a Trump appointee, is expected to decide on the motion to dismiss Disney’s lawsuit within the next several weeks.

Chava Gourarie can be reached at cgourarie@commercialobserver.com.